Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott by Annika Bautz

Jane Austen has transcended literature and entered the world as a pop culture icon, with "Movie Versions" of her books dominating book stores in waves.

The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott
A Comparative Longitudinal Study
 by Annika Bautz
Continuum Reception Studies
Published by Continuum Books, 2007

   One of the central questions of early nineteenth century literature is why Jane Austen is so popular today while Walter Scott is forgotten, when it was the exact opposite when both authors were writing at the same time in the early 19th century.  This reversal of fortune intrigued me several years back when I was reading both authors as part of the 1001 Books project.  I've actually looked into the rise of Jane Austen before, when I read "Janes Fame" which took a more anecdotal approach to this same question of "the rise of Jane Austen."

  Bautz makes it clear that Austen was in no way ignored upon initial publication- writing anonymously, at a time when both women and the novel had low status in the eyes of critics, Austen's books were singled out by reviewers- at times being the ONLY novel reviewed in the few literary periodicals of the early 20th century.  Scott, on the other hand, was thought to be such a genius that his books transcended the "genre" of the novel, and were treated as either a new type of literature or a novel without compare.

  In the period after the initial publication, Scott was above everyone else, and Austen was typically compared favorably to other Authors, but clearly underneath Scott.   Walter Scott dominated the 18th century.  What is often forgotten by contemporary writers opining on the subject is that Scott continued to be extremely popular into the 20th century- and this is an important point- he was more popular with general audiences into the 1920s and 30s, but critics deserted him a generation earlier, demonstrating that popular support exceeded critical support.

   This corresponds more with the popular conception of critics "leading" popular opinion than do the circumstances around his rise to prominence.  When his first novels were published, Scott already had a strong reputation as a poet, which was seen as "real" literature compared to the novel.  His first novel, Waverley, was a huge sales success, but critical notice trailed AFTER the sales had been obtained, leaving the critics, not leading public taste, but being led.

  Austen meanwhile was more of a slow burn.  Her femaleness and "ordinariness," which initially worked against her in terms of being taken seriously, turned into huge assets over time, when generations of female readers, and male educators, saw Austen as a kind of quintessential "high art" exponent of the novel as art form.  Today, the works of Austen are like a familiar shorthand for "high literature" and Scott is forgotten.  Scott is often now offhandedly claimed to be "unreadable" for modern audiences, but the truth is that few, outside of undergraduate and graduate literature programs, even try, whereas every high school senior has read at least one Austen novel.

The Castle (1926) by Franz Kafka

Author Franz Kafka

Book Review
The Castle (1926)
 by Franz Kafka

   There are certain authors I have convinced myself I have actually read, when in fact I have not actually read them.   I know I read The Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist in high school.  I know I bought a used copy of Amerika (and never read it.)   I've also convinced myself that I've read The Castle and The Trial at some indeterminate point in the past, but, that it is not true.  Before last month, I'd never read either book, but I'd gone so far as to write down that I had read The Castle "in high school" in my copy of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Because I had falsely tricked myself into thinking I'd previously read The Castle, it is one of the last fifteen or so titles from the 1920s that remain in the 1001 Books Project.

Among those 15 titles are the 3000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust and 900 pages of Ulysses by James Joyce.  The rest are equally divided by titles that seem too obvious to actually read (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis) and books that are hard to track down (The Green Hat by Michael Arlen) and/or foreign (The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.)

 The Castle is a true classic, with Kafka expertly evoking the sense of nameless fear and dread that gave rise to the term "Kafkaesque."  You can call Kafka expressionist, surreal, existentialist- all of those.  Describing the plot points of The Castle: A land surveyor journeys to a small village in the mountains of an unnamed European country, his attempts to do his job are thwarted by a series of vague, unseen castle bound bureaucrats;  simply do not do the material justice.

  On the hand, The Castle can be read as a straight-forward parody of bureaucracy and the vagaries of life in late 19th century Europe.  On the other hand, The Castle also works as a religious allegory, with the unseen castle higher ups standing in for an absent God.  In this way, there is some thematic consistency between Kafka's fiction and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard.  Kafka, like those philosophers, question the existence of God, but his fiction poeticizes the coming existentialist crisis of the 20th century.

  His departure from the canons of 19th century of European Realism represent a radical departure from the mainstream of traditionalist and experimental modernists alike.  Even more remarkable is the biographical details of his early death and subsequent request to have all this unpublished books burned afterwards.  Max Brod, his executor, essentially published unfinished manuscripts, meaning that The Castle is not only unfinished, it also has 80 pages that were added by Brod at the end by fiat, and 50 additional pages of deletions and fragments.

  Regardless of the manuscript issues, The Castle is a compelling read.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Devil in the Flesh(1922) by Raymond Radiguet

Book Review
The Devil in the Flesh (1922)
 by Raymond Radiguet

   This book was an early example of 20th century style romantic teenage art, before teenagers existed.  The Devil in the Flesh is about an aimless 17 year old from a suburb outside Paris, who begins a torrid affair with the young wife of a soldier fighting for France during World War I. Radiguet was himself a teenager when The Devil in the Flesh was written.  He only wrote one more book before dying young, of typhoid, in his early twenties.   The Devil in the Flesh makes for a fast read, only one hundred pages or so in normal paperback format, the version I read, an English import, had a smaller page layout and went a full 180 pages.

  The love affair between the teen protagonist and the soldiers wife is a tragic one, but not to the main character, whose self absorption and yearning for absent parental disciplines foreshadows a half century of the depiction of youth in American popular culture and art.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst by Adam Phillips

This picture of a young Sigmund Freud covers Adam Phillips' book, Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst
Book Review:
 Becoming Freud: The Making of a Psychoanalyst
 by Adam Phillips
Published May 27th, 2014
Yale University Press - Jewish Lives Series

  This is not meant as a full-on biography of Sigmund Freud.  For that, I (and the author, based on the number of references) would recommend Freud: A Life for Our Time by Peter Gay.   A book on "young Freud" is tantalizing, since so much of his work relates to childhood and the process of becoming an adult.  It's natural for anyone with even a cursory interest in his work to wonder about Freud's own childhood.  As Phillips points out, it is also natural to wonder about Freud's relationship with his own Mother.

These are questions that may forever remains unanswered.  This would be a good place to interject that Phillips did no original research for this book, and relies entirely on fairly well known prior biographical accounts to weave his narrative.  In my mind, this in no way diminishes the value of Becoming Freud.  Becoming Freud is analgous to the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum, where authors discuss the importance of a specific album in whatever manner they feel appropriate.  Here, Phillips uses prior biographies of Freud to make meta-biographical points about the experiences of Freud as a man and their influence on his work.

  Specifically, he discusses the idea of Freud himself simultaneously disliking biography, conceptualizing his own life and work in terms of biography, and integrating biographical concepts into the work itself.  Thus, quotes from prior biographies of Freud are a launching points for Phillips own, more detailed, speculations.  As a volume in the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series, there is a need to discuss Freud's Judaism and the role that it played in the period covered.

    Freud married "above" his own family- the daughter of a wealthy Orthodox rabbi.  This despite the fact that he was a non practicing/atheistic Jew.  In Vienna of his time, one could simply not disown oneself as a Jew, and the idea of the unwilling outsider was to permeate his life and his work.

   Phillips hits deepest when he talks about the fact that Freud came up with most of major works while he was fathering six children in eight years.  This little discussed biographical detail would seem to carry great weight in a mind that placed the greatest emphasis on childhood experiences, both as it relates to his own experience as a child, a son and a father.  The reader is left with the impression that bourgeois values firmly shaped his values even as he came up with ideas which would be instrumental in destroying those same values.

Look Homeward, Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe

Asheville in the early 20th century was the model for the Altamount of Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.

Book Review
Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life(1929)
by Thomas Wolfe

  Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward, Angel is not to be confused with Tom Wolfe, the author of Bonfire of the Vanities, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the man generally credited with "inventing" the New Journalism technique of inserting oneself into the story as a character.

  Thomas Wolfe was born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, and later attended Harvard University before dying young in 1930.  Look Homeward, Angel is not among the great modernist classics of the 1920s.  Rather, Wolfe is a kind of throwback to the bildungsromans/coming of age story of the late nineteenth and early 20th century.  There are no shifts of perspective, stream of consciousness experiments or time shifts.

  The story of would-be artist Eugene Gant is sold in inter generational fashion, but only in two generations- a nod to the late Victorian work of Trollope, but in a kind of truncated form.  After 150 pages or so we get to the 400 page portion that could as easily been called, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." His hometown of Altamount is a clear stand in for Asheville, the mountain town in Western North Carolina that has a long history of nurturing creative expression and free thought.

  Gant/Wolfe was raised in a large family and it is Wolfes depiction of his surroundings, rather then the Eugene Gant character himself, which spurs your interest in what is best described as a long, slow book.  Gant is certainly a "Southern Writer," but not a Great Southern Writer like Faulkner.  Rather, he is a good Southern Writer.  Ultimately the enduring value of Look Homeward, Angel is in the depiction of the South between the end of the 19th century through World War I.  Wolfe is a sharp observer of cultural detail, and that part of the book is fun to read.


Blog Archive