Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemmingway

Sandra Bullock played the real life "inspiration" for the love interest in A Farewell to Arms in the film In Love and War.

Book Review
A Farewell to Arms (1929)
by Ernest Hemmingway

 A list which included all the 1929 titles from the 1001 Books project would be;  The Maltese Falcon & Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, Hebdomeros by Giorgio de Chirico, Passing by Nella Larsen,  Living by Henry Green, The Time of Indifference by Albert Moravia,  All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Berlin Anderplatz by Alfred Doblin, The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, Harriet Hume by Rebecca West, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner,  Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau and Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.

  Including A Farewell to Arms that is 16 titles from a single year.  We are talking double the number of titles in 1929 than in any other year prior.  It is a veritable explosion, with authors writing in English, French, Italian and German.  There are also representatives from genre fiction (Hammett), Surrealism (Chirico), experimental Modernism (Doblin, Faulkner) and a plethora of works addressing the trauma of World War I (Remarque,  Bowen, West, Wolfe and of course Hemmingway.)

  Personally, I'd take A Farewell to Arms first, then the two Hammett novels and All Quiet on the Western Front as my "top 3."   In contrast to the effeteness and femininity that characterizes much of the writing in the 1001 Books project prior to the 1920s,  Hammett, Hemingway and Remarque write in both a clipped, "macho" style about "manly" subjects, namely war and crime.  If you look at the style and subjects of what normal people actually read: genre thrillers, romance novels and science fiction, the style of writing is closer to the thematic, stylistic developments of the end of the 1920s  then to anything that comes before.

  A Farewell to Arms is tops because Hemingway not only writes in a style that is both refreshing and in stark contradiction to prevailing literary taste, he also eschews the cardboard characters that haunt the world of genre fiction that Hammett tried so hard to transcend.  Hemingway's first book, The Sun Also Rises was a "roman a clef," or novel which describes ones friends.  Many people assumed that A Farewell to Arms was similarly based on experience, but not so. It's a pretty clever trick that, going from a roman a clef to something that LOOKS and FEELS like a thinly veiled biographical novel but is actually "real" fiction.


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf

Tilda Swinton as male Orlando in the filmed version.

Book Review
Orlando (1928)
by Virginia Woolf

   NINE Virginia Woolf novels in the 1001 Books Project.  There can be no question that within the confines of the canonization implicit in the 1001 Books Project, the 1920s are a fulcrum point, after which the vast majority of the books on the list were written.  Orlando is like her take on a fairy tale.  The title character, who it must be said bears some small debt to Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray character, is an English gentleman born in the 17th century.  He is the lover of Queen Elizabeth, and a great beauty with a "well turned leg."  Seeking to avoid a suitor, he becomes the Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, where he wakes up after a period of political turmoil as a woman.

  She then returns to England, now in the 18th century, where she seeks to claim to her estate from some grasping illegitimate children.  She pow-wows with 18th century wits like Alexander Pope.   As the 19th century dawns, she publishes a poem and gets married.  In the 20th century, she has a child, and the book ends with Orland speeding off in her automobile in October 1928.  Orlando shows Woolf fully in control of the reins of modernist technique, blending genres and different levels of self-awareness without letting any one aspect overwhelm the story of Orlando.

  To call Orlando a milestone in the development of LGBT literature is a mild understatement. Orlando was an actual popular hit, and must have literally inspired of thousands of people struggling with their own issues related to sexuality. 

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Magic Mountain (1924) by Thomas Mann

The sanatorium which inspired The Magic Mountain is now the Hotel Schatzalp outside of Davos, Switzerland.

Book Review
The Magic Mountain (1924)
 by Thomas Mann

  Like Ulysses by James Joyce or the multiple-volume Remembrance of Things Past by Proust, The Magic Mountain is one of those classics of 20s literature that sends a shudder down the spine of an otherwise conscientious litterateur.   It's 700 pages long with tiny margins (1200 pages according to the afterword by the Author in the Modern Library edition I read.)  It's translated from the German language.  The locale of a tuberculosis focused sanitarium high in the Swiss Alps is a setting that doesn't particularly resonate in our post-institutionalization environment.  Despite the difficulties has remained in print and well read.  It probably didn't hurt that Mann himself became a United States citizen after World War II and was on the right side in being against both Fascism and Communism.

  Despite dreading actually reading The Magic Mountain- I've started it at least twice and given up- I found it a rewarding experience.  Perhaps it's having the experience of reading much of the other literary classics of the 1920s to give me some context.  Certainly, when I tried to read The Magic Mountain in college I had little idea about the cultural or historical back drop.  Now, I'm well equipped to appreciate it.  Simply put, The Magic Mountain is like a little history of the early 20th century, with the central character, Hans Catsorp, being exposed to many of the ideas and trends of pre World War I Europe.  It is, as many German-language authors have made the case, a wonderful lost world.

  The Magic Mountain is one of those novels that is about "everything."  It's the polar opposite of the art about "nothing" that permeates the 21st century like a dense fog.  At the same time, Mann never appears to be trying to hard.  On one level, The Magic Mountain is a satire of the medical-industrial complex, with its ridiculous melange of germ theory and psychoanalysis.   But then on top of that you've got the linkage to the larger currents of intellectual thought: conservatism, freemasonry, spiritualism, antisemitism, all of it.

   Mann is also one of the first literary authors to incorporate technological advances into his narrative.  Important scenes take place both at the cinema and a late chapter of the novel revolves around the introduction of a third generation gramophone.  Other than the length, there is nothing particularly "hard" about reading The Magic Mountain, a stark contrast to Proust or Joyce.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914 (2004) by C.A. Bayly

The Birth of the Modern World 1780- 1914 by C.A. Bayly

Book Review
The Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914
 by C.A. Bayly
Blackwell Publishing, 2004

   The Birth of the Modern World is a global history of "the long nineteenth century;" a term that historians typically apply to the period between 1780 and the beginning of World War I .(August 1914- One hundred years ago!)  The Birth of the Modern World is a work of synthesis, with the author summarizing a variety of more recent historians who have combined to create a broad alternative to the narrative of "Western Exceptionalism" that used to dominate world histories of this time period.

   The idea that "the west won" the long nineteenth century still retains currency with the popular audience for history, and pop-historians like Jared Diamond have made an ample career out of explaining how and why "the west won."   Bayly explicitly writes to rebut that perspective, weaving in a "multi-center" perspective that incorporates the Muslim Empires of the early modern period (Ottomans, Mughals, Savfids) and the Eastern polities of China, Japan and South East Asia and showing that many so-called "Western" attributes had parallel developments in non-Western societies.

  The lack of original research gives The Birth of the Modern World a predictable structure, Bayly looks at the "conventional wisdom" of Western scholars on various issues related to the history of this time period, then he summarizes the work of non-Western and more recent Western scholars, then he draws measured conclusions that eschews the extreme interpretations of others.

  A major point that Bayly argues is that many of the changes of this early Modern period were the result of religions, particularly non-western religions, responding to the challenge of the west.  These non-western developments: the Wahhabi in Arabia and the reformers of East Asia in particular, are often excluded from "history" because of religious content, but really they are central to the discussion of the history of this period.

  Certainly, anyone familiar with the last decade of world history could understand how the development of the Wahhabi in the deserts of Arabia, would, two hundred and fifty years later, be viewed as a central development of world history, rather then a regional scrap between a failing Empire (Ottoman) and an oppressed minority (Bedouin Sunni Muslims.)

   One major point where Bayly seemingly agrees with past historians is that the pace of change did indeed intensify during the last two decades of this period (1884-1914.)

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