Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 04, 2019

The Confidence Man (1857) by Herman Melville

Book Review
The Confidence Man (1857)
 by Herman Melville

   Melville's last novel was The Confidence Man, published in 1857- after it tanked he retired from writing and spend the last 20 years of his life as a government employee.  The crazy thing about Melville and his literary career was not that he basically gave up because people didn't understand how great he was- but that he had an early period of success and fame based on his earliest travelogue style books- and THEN when he started publishing his epochal, canonical books, audiences deserted him and critics turn against him. 

   I've bought, started and promptly lost at least three different copies of The Confidence Man over the past two decades, so when I saw there was an Audiobook edition readily available I thought to take the plunge.  Most of The Confidence Man consists of a series of dialogues between characters in the form of flowery, rotund 19th century rhetoric, and that is the kind of the book that makes for much better listening than reading.  True, you can't effectively stop and look up references or vocabulary, but you also don't fall asleep reading pages of dry philosophical back and forth.

  The Confidence Man is filled with characters based on real life people in the 19th century, and it is apparently supposed to be, at some level, a satire and/or funny.  Listening, it struck me that The Confidence Man is as involved and elaborate as any mid 20th century work of "metafiction" or post-modernist literature, but again- listening as an Audiobook, I couldn't really stop and review passages and make notes etc, BUT I actually finished it,

   The Confidence Man of the title is not just a con-man in the modern sense of the word, instead he is literally obsessed with the word "confidence" and swindles people by playing on their desire to be perceived as trusting.  As he works a riverboat travelling the Mississippi, each chapter features a dialogue between the Confidence Man, who assumes a variety of different forms, and a mark, the object being to part the mark from some money.  Each dialogue revolves around different understandings of the word "confidence" and the allegorical approach- if not the specific subject of said allegory- is never far from the surface- this isn't a book where you lose yourself in the story.


Thursday, October 03, 2019

The Witness (1990) by Juan Jose Saer

Book Review
The Witness (1990)
 by Juan Jose Saer

Replaces: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

   Saer is one of the top Argentinian novelists of the 20th century, but he's little known in the United States/larger English speaking world.   The Witness is an inviting tale that combines elements of Conrad and Borges in a story about a young man who travels to the brand new-new world only to be taken captive by cannibalistic natives when the exploratory expedition he is attending is killed by said natives.   Also, they are eaten, and Saer brings an anthropological eye to the accompanying human feast and attendant debauchery.  Several years later, the boy, now a young man, is returned to another boat of Spanish explorers and returns to Spain, where he wrestles with questions of memory and, indeed, larger questions about humanity.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1934) by George Orwell

Image result for aspidistra
An Aspidistra of the sort named in the title of the book Keep the Aspidistra Flying, by George Orwell
Book Review
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1934)
 by George Orwell

    George Orwell only published nine books in his too-short life:
1934 – Burmese Days
1935 – A Clergyman's Daughter
1936 – Keep the Aspidistra Flying
1939 – Coming Up for Air
1945 – Animal Farm
1949 – Nineteen Eighty-Four
1933 – Down and Out in Paris and London
1937 – The Road to Wigan Pier
1938 – Homage to Catalonia

   He's got two all-time world-beating classics, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, both of which continue to be a commonly understood reference point in the English speaking world.   Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia are still commonly available in every book store.   Out of his second tier of titles, Burmese Days is still read, though mostly by specialists and students.  That leaves A Clergyman's Daughter, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air and The Road to Wigan Pier in Orwell's second tier.
    I read Keep the Aspidistra Flying for the first time in college, while studying in London, as part of a class on the History of London.  I had to write a term paper, I chose George Orwell.   Aspidistra is usually read as a roman-a-clef of Orwell's struggling artist days.  The narrator, Gordon Comstock,  is a university graduate who spurns a career in the burgeoning advertising industry in London to work in a book shop and write poetry.  He has a disappointed girlfriend, a disappointed sister and an enabling friend and patron.  Most of the story involves Comstock complaining about money.  He "sells out" in the end after knocking up his girlfriend, making Aspidistra a sort of anti-bildungsroman.
    I selected the Audiobook when I saw it was narrated by the actor Richard Grant- I'm a big fan- and I wasn't disappointed, even if the prose sometimes evoked cringing.   Not because it's bad writing, but because Comstock is   When I read the book in college it was an important factor in deciding to abandon vague ideas of pursuing "writing" and journalism in favor of going to law school.  If I was going to compromise, I wanted it to be in a field where I could control my own destiny.

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