Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, April 28, 2012


The Nun
by Denis Diderot
published in 1780
Penguin Classics edition published 1972
Translation and Notes by Leonard Tancock

                  I'm down to the BOTTOM FIVE of the 1700s portion of the 2006 edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. That five includes this book, Confessions, Revories of a Solitary Walker and Julie or The New Heloise all by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Justine by Marquis De Sade. I actually bought this edition of The Nun after learning that it would cost me just as much to buy the one cent physical copy used as the digital edition. If that's the case- meaning the digital copy is more then four books at a minimum- I'll go with a physical book.

           Denis Diderot is one of the three main figures of the French Enlighenement, along with Voltaire and Rousseau. All three are represented on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, but none of their books are what I would call "fun" unless you are a philosophy student, in which case their fiction is more fun than their philosophy. The Nun is stylisticly closed to being a modern Novel, in that it is the purported autobiography of a Nun. Compared to other Novels written around the same time, The Nun has a bracing pace and command of technique and art that surpasses his contemporaries. It's also more then a little bit naughty, since the second episode of The Nun concerns the attempted seduction of the titular Nun by the Mother Supieror of her convent.

            Coming in at a brisk 180 pages, The Nun is an easy read and might well provide some sort of spark of inspiration in a modern reader- 18th century French Nuns? That shit is hot.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Castle of Otranto by Hoarce Walpole

The giant helmet from the Castle of Otranto
The Castle of Otranto
by Hoarce Walpole
p. 1764
Dover Thrift Edition p. 2004

    The Castle of Otranto is credited with being the first Gothic Novel.  It's important to note just how late in the 18th century The Castle of Otranto was published: 1764 is well into the second half of the 18th century.  My recent review of The Mysteries of Udolpho, published April 24th discussed the average number of books produced per year in England in the 18th century:

 "A modern estimate of the average annual publication of new books, excluding pamphlets, suggests that an almost fourfold increase occurred during the century; annual output from 1666 to 1756 averaging less than 100, and that from 1792 to 1802, 372." (M. Plant, The English Book Trade, p. 37.)

    If The Mysteries of Udolpho (published in 1794) stands on the far side of that rise in publication volume, The Castle of Otranto stands on the other side, when the average number of books published in an entire year was less than 100.   What does that mean in terms of Audience reception of the respective works of Gothic Fiction?  Most obviously it means that The Mysteries of Udolpho had a larger actual and potential Audience then The Castle of Otranto, and also that Audience members who enjoyed the latter work had most likely read the earlier work since it had been out for 30 plus years.

  I remember distinctly that I read The Castle of Otranto book in 2008 and then re-read it in 2009.  What I remember about The Castle of Otranto is the fact that it was a Dover Thrift Edition, the most despised of all "Classics" series.  Also that the writing style is very "early 18th century" even though the book was published in mid-late 18th century.  He could have been trying to evoke an earlier writing style.

 There is an aspect of The Castle of Otranto that is "cheesy" or "popular" but I think that is more the result of the consequences of imitation rather then any integral weakness in the "Gothic style."   Up until very recently, Gothic influences dominated the "Horror" category and we all know how popular Horror is in film and books.  Music, too I suppose, whether it be horror core rap or Norwegian Death Metal.

  My observation is that you always need a ghost clanking around in chains:


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift

Jack Black plays Gulliver in the terrible, terrible movie version of Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels
by Jonathan Swift
Originally Published 1726
Amended 1735

    I read this book back in 2008, but didn't review it.  Jonathan Swift is better characterized as a "Pamphleter" or "Satirist," not a Novelist.  The enduring popularity of Gulliver's Travels as, essentially, a children's story has been accompanied by a drastic editing of the original work.  In the original work, Gulliver travels to several other locations besides the famous land of Lilliput.

 In the book, after Lilliput he goes to Brobdingnag, a land of giants. Then, he goes to the flying Kingdom of Laputa, and Balnibarbi.  Then he goes home, then he sales again and makes it to Houyhnhnms, which is a land of perfect horses.   I'm just telling you what's in there.

  An additional, or perhaps central irony is the transformation of Gulliver's Travels from a "too hot to publish" piece of political satire to a Jack Black starring Disney movie.  It's hard to follow today, but Gulliver's Travels was thought to be "anti-whig" satire, and it's very publication was controversial.

  Basically, what I'm trying to say is that Gulliver's Travels, terrible Jack Black movie's aside, is not a children's book, it is in fact a very sharp piece of early to mid 18th century political satire.   Swift had an edge when he was alive.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012



The Mysteries of Udolpho
by Ann Radcliffe
p. 1794

  I read this book back in 2010 but didn't write a review back then because, back then... I WASN'T BEING AS THOROUGH.   I thought now would be an appropriate time to slip it in because I just read ANOTHER book published in 1794, Caleb Williams by William Godwin, and reviewed it.

  1794, 1794 what's so great about 1794?  I would argue that is the first example of popular literary "taste" being expressed in a preference for dark themes and super natural influences.  This trend undoubtedly reflected that the Audience for books like The Mysteries of Udolpho, Caleb Williams and The Monk were, in fact, superstitious and had an interest in religion inspired "matters of the soul."

    The Mysteries of Udolpho was published in a set of four volumes.  The Monk was published in a single volume, anonymously.  I don't know how Caleb Williams was published, but I imagine it was a single volume.   "A modern estimate of the average annual publication of new books, excluding pamphlets, suggests that an almost fourfold increase occurred during the century; annual output from 1666 to 1756 averaging less than 100, and that from 1792 to 1802, 372." (1)

     What that tells you is that there was a rise in the corresponding Audience that was driving increased production of Books. It also tells you that the fact that two of the top 1000 books were both published in 1794 is something more then coincidence- it's the actual beginning of the second period identified where average book production was 372 a year.   1794 must have been a year where the publishing world was expanding and publishers were looking for additional titles to print, opening the door to new authors and different combinations of subject matter and format.

  The Mysteries of Udolpho is like the arch-type for the late 18th century Gothic Novel: Abducted heroine, draft castles in mysterious locations, spirits, etc.

 Perhaps the most enduring part of Udolpho besides its status as gothic novel par excellance is the depiction of geography:  She accompanies him on a journey from their native Gascony, through the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean coast of Roussillon, over many mountainous landscapes.  ROMANTIC LANDSCAPES.


(1) Majorie Plant, The English Book Trade (London, 1939), p.445 cited in Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel, p. 37 (1957)

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