Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

A Day Off (1933) by Storm Jameson

Book Review
A Day Off (1933)
by Storm Jameson

  The depiction of loneliness in London is practically a genre itself within the 1001 Books project.  Urban anomie is often associated with the rise of existentialism in the 1950s, but English authors depicted this alienation, minus the heavy philosophical overlay, starting in the late 19th century.  Jameson's take on this fertile territory is that of a single woman, aging, with no children or spouse.  Out of work, she decides to take "A Day Off" to ease her mind, and while doing so she travels back and forth in time, remembering lost lovers and worrying for her future. The feeling of sadness permeates A Day Off, and if a reader has any inclinations in the area of loneliness and anxiety, this book will certainly trigger an interior dialogue with those emotions.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard

Book Review
The Drowned World (1962)
 by J.G. Ballard

  J.G. Ballard is a huge loser in the ongoing process of revision to the 1001 Books project.  In the 2008 revision he lost five of his seven total titles, The Drowned World being one of the removed books.  It looks like a majority of the books removed between 2006 and 2008 came from authors who had three or more titles on the 2006 list.  Almost 100% of the titles added in 2008 were new authors with no prior representation on the list.  Ballard is associated with the so-called "new wave" of science fiction from the 1960s and 70s.  These authors incorporated new themes derived from environmentalism and technological innovation with a greater consciousness of science fiction as "literature" rather than pulp fiction.

  Although Ballard has become synonymous with dystopian fiction to the point where "Ballardian" has become a recognized adjective to describe his unique futuristic landscapes, his most famous work is the traditional World War II novel Empire of the Sun, made into a film in the US starring a young Christian Bale.  The Drowned World takes place in a 22nd century London where "solar storms" have led to irreversible global warming.  London, and all the other cities of the world are flooded an uninhabitable, and humanity, down to a total population of five million, lies clustered at the North and South Poles where the average temperature is a livable 80 degrees.  Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist attached to a long term mission to catalog the spiraling number of new animal and plant species, as the mission nears completion, he decides to remain, having come to the conclusion that the changes to the climate have created a kind of regressive "deep time" that precludes human efforts to combat the changes.

  This blend of hard sci-fi with abnormal psychology is the essence of what is meant by "Ballardian."  He has a direct influence on notable filmmakers like David Chronenberg (who adapted the Ballard novel Crash into a film) and David Lynch.  And while I understand and am sympathetic with the need to revise the 1001 Books list to reflect more diversity, I'm sorry to see a science fiction title go, let alone as dark as The Drowned World.

Story of 0(1954) by Pauline Reage

Story of O is the obvious inspiration for recent pop culture phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey 

Book Review
Story of 0(1954)
 by Pauline Reage

   Before there was Fifty Shade of Grey there was  Story of O, the original work of erotic fiction focused on the pleasures of being a submissive woman.  It is worth noting that BDSM depictions in literature go back centuries, most notably in the work of the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century author. Unlike de Sade, Story of O places the experience of the woman at the center of the narrative.  O is a very willing participant in the S&M activities of Story of 0.

  Certainly most if not all of the shock value contained in the pages of Story of O has been depleted by the "pornification" of our culture and the mainstream success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Activities that were considered beyond the pale by mid-century standards (anal sex, group sex, oral sex) are almost vanilla by today's standards, leaving behind the sketch of a S&M love affair.   The library copy I checked out had a never-before-seen, "Keep behind the Counter" sticker on the binding, proof that the library system holds back "dangerous" books from the public.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The streets of Palermo, Sicly

Book Review
The Leopard (1958)
by  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

     The Leopard is an outlier when considered against the neo-realistic trend of Italian art in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was Italian nobility, the last Prince of Lampedusa, a small island off the southern coast of Sicily, and he wrote The Leopard in secret after World War II.  It was published after his death in the late 1950s, and immediately became a world-wide publishing sensation, a reputation that persists today, see the 2012 Observer list of "10 best historical novels."

  The Leopard is based on the life of Lampedusa's grandfather and his family during the Italian unification process of the mid 19th century (called Risorgimento in Italy.)  Much of the pleasure of The Leopard is not derived from the plot, but rather the description of this lost way of life, the life of the nobility of Sicily in the period immediately after the beginning of the "modern period" in Italian history.  Lampedusa's aristocrats are mild and inoffensive, and much of the book is about the compromises that the Prince needs to make to accommodate modernity, notably the marriage of a favorite nephew to the beautiful daughter of a wealthy local bourgeois.

 But I'll tell you, if this book doesn't make you seriously consider a visit to Sicily, nothing will.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow in the mid 1960s, two decades into his literary career and on the cusp of canonical status in his lifetime.
Book Review
Herzog (1964)
 by Saul Bellow

 Saul Bellow is a huge loser in the revisions to the 1001 Books list which have been published after 2006.  In 2008, the editors dropped Henderson the Rain King (1959), Seize the Day(1956),  The Adventures of Augie March  (1953) and  The Victim (1947), leaving only three Saul Bellow titles in the core group of 700 books.  So in other words, in the space of two years, Saul Bellow lost more than half of his titles in the 1001 Books list.  This change points to the major dynamic in the 2008, 2010 and 2014 editions, the removal of American and British authors in favor of more diversity from underrepresented literary traditions.

  But let us enjoy Bellow's robust presence on the original, 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list.  After all, Bellow is an American, well North American anyway (he was born in Canada), he's Jewish (I'm Jewish) and he's the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and more National Book Award than any other Author.  Bellow is an example of an author who had both commercial and critical success during his lifetime.  Since then, his reputation has suffered, but now perhaps, he is experiencing a revival in conjunction with the publication of a multi-volume biography by Zachary Leader (the first volume was published in May of last year.)  

  The accompanying essay says that Herzog was Bellow's first "literary" success, i.e. the book that won him the respect of serious critics, rather than a mixture of popular and critical acclaim where sales were driving the positive notices.  Moses Herzog, a neurotic, cuckolded, Jewish, Professor of Romanticism is the kind of character who became especially prominent in the 1970s in books by Phillip Roth and the films of Woody Allen, a kind of walking New Yorker article.  He is also Bellow's most memorable creation.

Ragazzi di vita (1956) by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini loved his hustlers.
Book Review
Ragazzi di vita AKA "The Hustlers" (1956)
  by Pier Paolo Pasolini

     Pasolini loved his street-wise hustlers.  He was famously beaten to death by one in the prime of his career.  At a time (1950s) when Italian culture was hitting on all cylinders world-wide, Pasolini was a dark prince.  Famously controversial, he devoted his career to depicting the dark side of human nature, like in his 1975 movie version of the Marquis De Sade's, 120 Days of Sodom, updated to include Nazis instead of French aristocrats.  The young male hustlers in Ragazzi di vita are "street toughs" instead of being members of a specific working-class youth subculture.  Their days consist of stealing scrap metal, picking pockets, pursuing sex with prostitutes, drinking, sleeping outside and very rarely gay sex with older men.  They are pursued sporadically by the cops, and they are all on the cusp of contracting tuberculosis and dying.

  Pasolini does nothing to glamorize their petty criminal life style, but it is clear that he has a fondness for these characters and that he is sympathetic to their plight.  At the time of publication, Pasolini said that he was trying to help remember the forgotten.   The city of Rome is another major character in Ragazzi di vita.  Anyone who has been there for a weekend will recognize the locations of the center city, from the Via Veneto, to the Villa Borgese, to the area around the Coliseum. Other locations are less familiar to a tourist, but are vividly drawn.

A ghost at noon (1955) by Alberto Moravia

A ghost at noon by Alberto Moravia is better known by its film version, called Contempt, which was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starred Bridgette Bardot in one of her iconic roles.
Book Review
A ghost at noon (1955)
 by Alberto Moravia
     Contempt (1963), directed by Jean-Luc Godard is one hell of a movie.  That film is based on A ghost at noon, the 1955 novel by Alberto Moravia.  Riccardo Molteni is a struggling film journalist with a new wife, living in a rented room in post-war Rome.   In short order he falls in with Battini, a larger-than-life producer who wants to hire Riccardo to write film scripts.  Based entirely on his new found employment, Riccardo makes the down payment on a larger flat, only to be immediately informed by his young wife that she would rather sleep in a separate room.

  The relationship spirals downward from there, with events coming to a climax at Battini's remote Capri villa, as Riccard and a German director are set to collaborate on a movie version of Homer's Odyssey.   This joining of the project of literary adaptation with a personal relationship drama is one of the go-to moves of smart mid to late 20th century narrative story telling.  You can think of the large genre of "movies about making movies."  A ghost at noon is the first of these sort of stories.  

Casino Royale(1953) by Ian Fleming

Daniel Craig is the most recent James Bond, pictured here in the recent film version of Casino Royale.
Book Review
Casino Royale (1953)
by Ian Fleming

  Based on my reading of every major novelist published between the 18th and mid 20th century, I would identify three major paths that novelists follow to canonization.  The first path, followed by the majority of authors on the list is a mixture of popular and critical success during their lifetime, with the canonization happening either after the end of the author's productive career or immediately after their death.  This canonization takes the form of awards, critical and anniversary editions of important texts and the growth of secondary literature, biographies, criticism about the author.  The second major path is critical success during the career with some or no popular success,  These tend to be authors from outside the mainstream of the American/French/German literary axis.  Critical success might come via translation for non-English language authors, or it might be the association of the author with a particularly significant sub-culture.  These are the "avant garde" novelists in the early 20th century.  They are also many of the female and regional authors writing in English in the 19th and 20th century.

  The final path is the popular novelist who sells tons of books during their life but without critical acknowledgment.  For these authors, canonization can begin mid career or after death, but usually it takes a while for these authors to be "elevated,"  even as their books continue to sell and circulate for decades.  These are genre authors, science fiction and detective fiction.  An emerging group in this pathway are the comic graphic novelists of recent decades.

  Ian Fleming is the ultimate example of this third pathway, and the idea that he is a canonical novelist is still controversial, while the idea of James Bond, his creation, as an iconic 20th century hero is ever more firmly enshrined.  The sheer power and success of Bond, rather than any belated acknowledgment of Fleming as a writer, no doubt accounts for his inclusion in the core group of 700 books at the heart of the 1001 Books list.  Casino Royale was the first bond novel, and it already contains all of the elements at the heart of the bond ethos: the shaken, not stirred martini, a double crossing femme fatale, exotic global locations.  Both in terms of style and structure, as a literary exercise, Casino Royale is a poor cousin to other genre examples from this time period.  When you compare Fleming to Graham Greene, it's like Greene is the Sun and Fleming an asteroid.  Still, there is no denying the vitality of the character of James Bond and his "red blooded" traits are closer to that of the American Private Investigator of the 30s and 40s than the tortured English intellectuals who populate Graham Greene's universe.   It is on account of this vitality, and the overwhelming success of the filmed versions of Flemings' novels, that Casino Royale remain widely in print and read a half century after publication.

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