Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Doom That Came to Sarnath (collected early stories)(1971) by H.P. Lovecraft

The Doom that Came to Sarnath was a compilation of Lovecraft's early stories, published by Ballantine Adult Fantasy in 1971, a half century after Lovecraft stopped writing.
Book Review
The Doom That Came to Sarnath (collected early stories(1971)
 by H.P. Lovecraft

  H.P. Lovecraft wrote these stories between 1917 and 1935, and this is the second collection of his early works under the aegis of Ballantine Books Adult Fantasy division and editor Lin Carter.  Lovecraft is mostly (well, almost entirely) for his series of Cthulhu stories, about a horrific cult monster.  Those stories were written in the late twenties and early thirties, and none of them are included in this collection.

 Honestly, the most interesting part of this collection is Lin Carter's introduction, where he discusses the constituent influences on Lovecraft leading up to his development of the Cthulhu pantheon.:

     The so-called Cthulhu Mythos, while completely his own invention, was constructed along the guidelines established by earlier writers whom he greatly admired.  From the Welsh writer, Arthur Machen (1863-1947), he borrowed, and improved upon, the notion of buttressing a fantastic tale with an illusion of authenticity by surrounding it with documentary, factual evidence,
      From the American novelist, Robert W. Chambers (1865-1933) he adapted a second notion.  Several of Chambers' short weird stories employ as their central theme the devilish and seductive influence of a strange, corrupting book called The King in Yellow. Chambers describes it as a verse play of poisonous beauty, and quote enigmatic fragments from it in some of the tales.  The more gullible of his readers may have accepted, if only for the moment, the book's existence as a fact.  Lovecraft used this idea in his stories, inventing a book of his own called the Necronomicon, quoted lavishly from its pages, and incorporated into his fiction a complex apparatus of names and dates of translators and editions, thus making a deliberate and surprisingly successful attempt to convince the reader that there actually was such a book.
      [L]ovecraft is more deeply indebted to the great Anglo-Irish fantasist, Lord Dunsany (1878-1957).  Dunsany's earliest fiction, in collections like The Gods of Pegana and The Book of Wonder, introduced a delicious innovation to the writing of fantasies.  The baron created an imaginary pantheon of divinties, wrote their legends in a connected series of brief prose-poems, and then in later works used his "Pegana mythos" as background detail for fantastic tales set in invented lands "at the Edge of the World," That is, not content to make up his own geography, Dunsany invented the religion to which his imaginary kingdoms paid worship.

   Lovecraft himself was largely ignored- even this collection- published forty years after Lovecraft stopped writing, was published as a pulp paperback, a kind of parody of a scholarly treatise.  In my experience, Lovecraft is often discussed as something sui generis, spontaneously generated, with only a vague connection to Edgar Allan Poe to establish his (dubious) literary pedigree.   The Doom That Came to Sarnath takes you behind the curtain, to show that Cthulhu did not emerged fully formed from the mind of a mad man.   Even if you were a Lovecraft fan, you probably wouldn't know about Dunsany, Chambers (who was a point of reference in the first series of the HBO television show, True Detective.) and Machen.  Certainly I'd never heard of Dunsany and Machen, either inside or outside the 1001 Books project.  Lovecraft himself is only partially a canonical author- a fringe member of the canon- but I feel like he should be more important, just based on his contributions to the aesthetic mindscape of contemporary popular culture.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 (1927) by Marcel Proust

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust is pretty much the end of the psychological- realist novel of the 19th century(although published in the 1920's.)
Book Review
Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 (1927)
 by Marcel Proust

   The three most challenging reads in the 1001 Books project I've encountered so far, close to 700 books into the project are, in order:
1.  Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce
2.  A Thousand Nights and a Night (1001 Arabian Nights) by Anon
3.  Remembrance of Things Past

   I have been so far unable to complete the first two books on the list.  I stalled out on Finnegans Wake about 10 pages in, realizing that I lacked the time to really understand what I was reading.  Arabian Nights is incredibly long- more than 10 volumes, depending on the edition, with none of the familiar narrative conventions a reader associates with the novel.   I found a free public audio book version, but it is simply so long and boring that I stalled out mid way through volume six.

   Remembrance of Things Past is incredibly long (over 3000 pages in the current three volume English translation)  AND incredibly difficult to read, but it is not primitive (like a Thousand Nights and a Night) or obtuse (Finnegans Wake).  It is incredibly detailed.  Remembrance of Things Past is simply the last word in the story of the 19th century realist novel, with it's emphasis on pre-scientific psychology and intricately observed social relationships.   Despite the fact that Remembrance of Things Past being a kind of catch phrase for "amazingly difficult literature," you'd be hard pressed to find someone who can accurately describe it beyond the "Proust smells a madeline and is transported" elevator pitch edition.

 The three volume set I bought for twenty bucks (!) at the Last Bookstore in DTLA contains a helpful synopsis, which is like, the best succinct description of "what happens" in the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.  It is worth re-typing, at length, the first hundred pages of this synopsis:

SYNOPSIS
Swann's Way
CombrayAwakenings (5) Bedrooms of the past, at Combray (6), at Tansonville (7), at Balbec (8; cf 717), Habit (9).
Bedtime at Combray (cf. 46). The magic lantern; Genevieve de Brabant (10). Family evenings (11). The little close smelling of orris-root (13, cf. 172). The good-night kiss (13; cf 24, 29-46).  Visits from Swann (14):  his father (15); his unsuspected social life (16). "Our social personality is the creation of other people's thoughts" (20),  M,me, de Villeparisis's house in Paris; "the tailor and his daughter" (21). Aunts Celine and Flora (25). Francoise's Code (30). Swan and I (32, cf.322).  My upringings: "principles" of my father (38). My grandmother's presents; her ideas about books (42).  A reading of George Sand (44).
Resurrection of Combrary through involuntary memory.  The madeline dipped in a cup of tea (48).
Combray.  Aunt Leonie's two rooms (53); her lime-tea (55).  Francoise (56).  The church (63). M. Legrandidn (72).  Eulalie (74).  Sunday lunches (76). Uncle Adolphe's sanctum (77). Love of the theatre: titles on posters (79).  Meeting with "the lady in pink" (81).  My family quarrel with Uncle Adolphe (86).  Reading in the gartden (90).  The gardener's daughter and the passing cavalary (95) Bloch and Bergotte (97).  Block and my family (98).  Reading Bergotte (101).

   So that is the synopsis of the first hundred pages of a three thousand page book, essentially one book, published originally in seven different volumes and today as a standard three volume revised set, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrief and Terence Kilmartin.  Some of those listed subjects consist of a single paragraph, or two or three paragraphs, over the course of a half dozen pages.   As befits a man who can devote a dozen pages to "The good-night kiss," Proust makes incredibly detailed observations about the motivations of himself and others.

  Nothing even remotely resembling the plot of even that first portion of the first volume occurs in the first hundred pages.  Remembrance of Things Past is almost protean in terms of Proust's development of different themes, but a loose description  would focus on the lives of middling French aristocrats during the Third French Republic (1870-1940) particularly during the time of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906).    It's hard to even imagine a comparison where a book does a similar job of so thoroughly conveying the spirit of a time and place as Proust does for his set.    He quite effortlessly surpasses any possible 19th century English comparison in the first twenty pages, by the end of Volume 1  he seemed almost contemporary in his grasp of social interactions between the wealthy. 

Burger's Daughter (1979) by Nadime Gordimer


Book Review
Burger's Daughter (1979)
by Nadime Gordimer

   South African author Nadime Gordimer is another Booker/Nobel Prize for Literature winning double.   Bit of a scandal that she only placed two books on the 1001 Books list. Her 1974 Booker Winner, The Conservationist, didn't even make the cut.   Her relative dearth of novels (especially when compared to fellow South African Nobel/Booker winner J.M. Coeteze (10 titles!) maybe relates to the decline in interest in the struggle surrounding the Apartheid/White Supremacist government in South Africa by the African National Congress and their allies.

  Like several other books that deal with the subject of the plight of leftist activist/terrorist types after World War II, Burger's Daughter is written about the child of a pair of white South African Communists who both die in prison after being convicted of crimes against the South African government during the apartheid era. The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, about the children of  the Rosenberg spies, published in 1977, is one book that comes to mind.  The Safety Net, by Heinrich Boll, is another.

 Burger's daughter, named Rosa, after Rosa Luxembourg is the daughter of Lionel Burger, a South African doctor of Dutch decent, who turns his back on his people in order to assist in the struggle of Africans against the white minority government.   A critical scene in the novel is Rosa's memory of taking her Father supplies while he was imprisoned awaiting trial.  After losing the trial, he is sentenced to life in prison, and dies a couple years into his sentence.

 The rest of Burger's Daughter is Rosa struggling both with the legacy of her father and the role she wants to play in the ongoing struggle for freedom in South Africa.   Gordimer's style is elliptical, abstract and the overwhelming mood is a sense of detachment in the aftermath of physical and mental trauma.  Burger's Daughter is transparently an important novel about a vitally important subject.  You get the sense that the character is based on someone Gordimer knew, which is apparently the case.

  Burger's Daughter is also a good reminder of just how fucked up apartheid era South Africa was, and how complicated, lest we forget.

Rites of Passage (1980) by William Golding


Book Review
Rites of Passage (1980)
 by William Golding

  Rites of Passage is book one of a "nautically themed" trilogy, collected as To the Ends of the Earth.  It won the Booker Prize the year it was released.  The other two books in the trilogy didn't make the 1001 Books list.  It's also relevant that William Golding won the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Golding was not a particularly prolific author.  Lord of the Flies (1954) was his first published novel, and Rites of Passage, published a quarter century later is his tenth novel, giving him a rate of one novel every 2.5 years.   The fact that he only got two novels on the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list tells me that he was already unfashionable a decade ago.   None of his novels have been added, even though it's been over two decades since his death in 1993, adequate time for a critical reappraisal.

  It's hard to write anything about Golding without discussing Lord of the Flies, which has to rank among the top ten literary debuts in the history of the English novel.  It's been a mainstay in school literature classes all over the world for over a half century.  The  term "Lord of the Flies" is now used as a short hand to describe plots ranging from high school relationship comedies to sci fi/action thrillers.  

  Rites of Passage takes place entirely on a ship making a lengthy voyage to Australia from England in the 19th century.  The narrator is a young gentleman, on his way to assume an administrative position in Van Dieman's land (modern Tasmania).   During the voyage, he becomes involved in the circumstances of another passenger, Reverend Colley.   Captain Anderson, commander of the vessel, maintains a strict anti-clerical stance that brings him into direct contact with Colley,  and it all ends poorly for Colley, leaving Talbot (the gentleman) to pick up the pieces...with surprising results.

  A reader looking for similarities between Lord of Flies and Rites of Passage might point to a timeless quality in his prose, both suitable for a mid 20th century reader and a character in the 19th century.   Like Lord of Flies, Rites of Passage explicitly grapples with themes related to the crumbling of morality that comes from groups of people operating outside of society.  Lord of Flies is of course a prime example of his entire genre, but Rites of Passage works along similar lines.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Rituals (1980) by Cees Nooteboom


Book Review
Rituals (1980)
by Cees  Nooteboom

  If I was looking for an angle in the publishing world my first take would be an out of print, public domain novel from the 19th century that could be "revived" for some reason.  The second take would be trying to market a translation of a foreign genre author- either science fiction or detective fiction.  In terms of the translation of serious literature, such as this novel, Ritual, by Cees Nooteboom, a Dutch author with two books on the core 1001 Books list, I would stay away.  Nothing, short of a Nobel Prize for Literature is likely to vault an obscure "serious" foreign author to the attention of the English reading audience.

   Rituals falls squarely within the tradition of the pan-European philosophical novel, basically the French existentialist literary tradition transported across international boundaries.  The narrator of Rituals,  Inni Wintrop,  is a wealthy, aimless young man who wanders the city speculating in the stock market and antiques.  Rituals mostly concerns his relationship with a Father/Son duo over the course of a decade, father at the beginning and son at the end.   Both are figures of extreme obsession, familiar only within the very tradition of the European philosophical novel.

   Like other philosophical novels, Rituals is interesting to the degree one identifies with certain aspects of the "characters."   

Monday, January 02, 2017

Rabbit is Rich (1981) by John Updike


Book Review
Rabbit is Rich (1981)
 by John Updike

   For me, John Updike is a symbol for the mainstream "serious" American fiction of my youth.  I associate him in my mind with the New Yorker, John Cheever, white people and New England.  To be fair, my childhood impression associating Updike with New England was mistaken- Rabbit Angstrom, the hero of Updike's classic Rabbit tetralogy, lives somewhere in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. According, to Updike's biography, Rabbit's landscape is largely based on Berks County, Pennsylvania.   That's not a suburban location in the sense of tract homes and lengthy commutes, rather it's a formerly thriving industrial town now in permanent decline.

  During the course of the first three novels, Rabbit Angstrom from Linotype operator, working at the job his Dad got him, to part-owner of the Toyota/used car dealership founded by his now deceased father-in-law.   Rabbit is still living in his in-law's home, a decade after the disastrous fire which ended Rabbit Redux and destroyed the Angstrom's home from the first two books.   A decade later, life has mellowed for the Angstrom's, with Rabbit uncomfortably ballooning in size  He worries about losing his edge, feelings which are amplified when his son Nelson returns home during the summer before his senior year in college.

  Nelson, of course, played a prominent role in his father's own version of the summer of love.   Angstrom's summer of love was a primary concern of Rabbit Redux, but a decade later it's almost like the events of the second book have been erased in the minds of every character except son Nelson.   Updike reenacts the events of the first novel, Rabbit rebelling against and then embracing his responsibility, in the behavior of Nelson.   The big secret that percolates through Rabbit is Rich is that Nelson has gotten his girlfriend from college pregnant.  To call him ambivalent (Nelson) about the pregnancy of his girlfriend, Pru, is to do Nelson a favor.   In fact, he is transparently displeased with Pru' insistence on having the child.

  Rabbit and his wife are less unsure.  When the fact of the pregnancy is finally revealed to Rabbit, much of the tension in Rabbit is Rich dissipates, and what remains is a third act where the son repeats the sin of the father from the first book.  This time however, the perspective is that of the father, not the son.  The symmetry between book one and three really calls into question why Updike wrote a fourth book.  Although that book also won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature it did not make it into the 1001 Books list.

Nor did any other of Updike's voluminous bibliography make the cut.  The 1001 Books editors did not cut any of the three Rabbit titles from subsequent revisions.  What is left is the first three Rabbit books, and they serve as a window into the mindset of the middle class, northeastern, white American male from the period after World War II to the dawn of the Reagan era.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Sea, The Sea (1978) by Iris Murdoch


Book Review
The Sea, The Sea (1978)
 by Iris Murdoch

   The Sea, The Sea was the 1978 Booker Prize winner and perhaps it was a bit of a make up for the fact that the Booker Prize hadn't even started until Murdoch was 15 novels deep into her career.  It is also the sixth novel to make the first version of the 1001 Books list and the last, chronologically speaking.   My take on Murdoch is that she is the last of the line of 20th century English authors that begins, more or less, with D.H. Lawrence- writers who managed to animate the relationship between the sexes, both physically and mentally, while simultaneously maintaining their direct connection to English authors of the 19th century.  

   Thus, with Murdoch, you often get a combination of familiar "English novel" elements:  Childless, upper middle class English men and women experiencing a spiritual crisis of one sort of another, falling in and out of love, drinking and screwing.  In The Sea, The Sea, the narrator/protagonist is Charles Arrowby, a distinguished figure in the world of London theater, recently retired and moved to an isolated English sea-side village, where he rents an eccentric home perched at the top of a cliff, overlooking the sea.

  His contemplative mood is interrupted when he discovers, quite by chance, that his first love, the "one who got away" is living nearby, with her husband.  He rapidly becomes obsessed with renewing their relationship, despite all evidence that a renewal of the prior relationship is impossible.  Other characters pop in and out as Arrowby's increasingly desperate machinations result in an actual kidnapping of his beloved and worse.

  In a career of vividly drawn characters, Charles Arrowby, with his egomania and theatrical background, stands out, as does his "Old India Hand" cousin, James, whose experiences with Eastern mysticism during his time in the British army play an increasingly important role as events take the course.  He also introduces the touch of science fiction/fantasy, that Murdoch has played with in prior books, elevating The Sea, The Sea out of a strictly realist perspective.

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