Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 28, 2018

L'Abbé C (1950) by Georges Bataille

Book Review
L'Abbé C (1950)
by Georges Bataille

   Georges Bataille has managed to hold onto his three places on the 1001 Books list through all the different revisions.  As an avatar of transgressive fiction, his books opened up, or at least expanded the scope of some narrowly explored areas:  Sex, death, hookers, the unconscious; describing the themes of L'Abbe C sounds like a description of the subsequent nearly 70 years of avant garde culture since it was published.   When you think about the fact that this book was published in 1950, the shock value rises. 

   Like many members of the inter-war French avant garde, Bataille had an axe to grind with Catholicism and it's representatives.   Here, the titular Abbe is seduced by a girl he knew growing up, who is now a prostitute.  The form of the book- a novella with several enclosed narratives amps up the level of complexity, but the basic incident:  The abbe collapses during a church service after the prostitute shows up with her friends, spurs a rapid decline and leads to his eventual arrest by the Nazi's for helping the resistance.  Meanwhile, his brother, another narrator, drinks and screws said prostitutes, amused by his brother's dilemma. 

Don Quixote (1615) by Miguel de Cervantes

Image result for don quixote
A statue of Don Quixote stands in Madrid.

Book Review
Don Quixote (1615)
 by Miguel de Cervantes

    Don Quixote is actually an original novel and a sequel, published a decade apart.  Don Quixote is a massive, protean, seminal and canonical work- called "the first canonical novel" on its glorious wikipedia page, and nearly one thousand pages in printed form (and forty hours long as an Audiobook in the edition I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library.)  Like Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote is one of those books that manages to be "post-modern" centuries before modernism had established itself, let alone post-modernism.

  Specifically, the second volume of the single book known today as the one novel, was written a decade after the first book, and in the universe of the second novel, people have read the first book, and Don Quixote has gained fame for the misadventures of his first book.  Indeed, the plot of the entire second volume is driven forward by a local Duke and Duchess who are great fans of the first volume of Don Quixote's adventures, and use their wealth and leisure to construct a series of increasingly outrageous stunts and pranks, up to and including making Sancho Panza the "Governor" of an island in their territory.

   The first volume is more straight forward, consisting mainly of two separate forays by Quixote into his surroundings, where he is frequently confused, baffled and mislead by friends, foes and complete strangers, including his own squire, Sancho Panza.  Quixote's ultimate tormentors are, in his mind, some nameless "Enchanters" who are capable of changing what Quixote perceives, so, for example, he might see a farm maid and be told by other that she is his long-sought after Princess.  Throughout Quixote, the nature of reality is called into question in a fashion that immediately brings to mind some of the basic principles of so-called "post-modern" literature.

    These days, Quixote, along with other thousand page titans of pre 19th century literature, have fallen into disuse outside the academy.  Even in universities, my sense is that the length of Quixote prevents it from being frequently taught. One thousand pages in print is enough to scare off even the most hardened fan of canonical literature.  As an Audiobook, on the other hand, Quixote was very digestible.  Most of the book is spoken dialogue, well adapted for the Audiobook format, and the picaresque form of the narrative makes following along easy considering the age of the text.


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Rebel (1951) by Albert Camus

Book Review
The Rebel (1951)
by Albert Camus

  It is hard to fathom how The Rebel qualifies as the only work of philosophy (as supposed to fiction/literature) to make the 1001 Books list. I still own the copy that I bought at a Berkeley used book store in high school and never, not once, have I been tempted to take it off the shelf and revisit Camus' truculent wisdom.  Perhaps the inclusion comes from Camus' grounding of much of The Rebel on the behavior of famous literary characters, with a particularly detailed accounting of the development of nihilism in Russian literature during the 19th century.  With some shock, I realized that at some level I had remembered this portion of the book, since a bastardized version of his analysis percolated through my brain in recent years as I've read Turgenev and Dostoyevsky.

   His analysis of "the rebel" and his (sorry ladies!) behavior through different layers of history was a precursor for the thinkers who formulated the idea of a "counter culture"- it's no wonder that The Rebel and Camus' other famous works were readily available in every Bay Area book store in the early 1990's.  As counter cultures have grown large enough to swamp the idea of a mainstream culture, and said mainstream culture has responded, Camus' analysis of the politically active rebel man has been replaced by a media savvy, gender undifferentiated critic: reflecting a similar cultural shift among writers, from the privileged, white, avant garde, preaching rebellion while adhering closely to many societal standards, to the queer and non binary, non white, and non male critical theorists of the 1970's and 1980's.

  In that important sense, The Rebel is simultaneously a relic of the past of "dead white males" and a precursor to the post-1960's explosion in diversity- pity it is such a bore to read. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Tale of Genji (1100) by Murasaki Shikibu

Book Review
The Tale of Genji (1100)
 by Murasaki Shikibu

Replaced: Metamorphoses by Ovid (Review 2015)

  The Tale of Genji is a 1500 page proto-novel, written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, AKA Lady Murasaki around the turn of the millenium in Japan.   The Genji of the title is a royal prince, not in direct line for the throne, who is renowned for his beauty and the type of skills which were highly valued in feudal Japan:  He can write a mean hand at calligraphy, is a master of the ceremonial dance, and can play instruments and sing.  He is also a connoisseur of women, something along the lines of a don juan without the vicious cuckolding.  Apparently, the social structure of Japan left many aristocratic single women, and there were no religious or social prohibitions of a wealthy, aristocratic man enjoying the company of many women more or less at the same time.

  The Tale of Genji is a startling riposte to the conventional idea of the novel developing exclusively in western Europe in the 18th century.  Here, in Japan, in 1100 A.D., a woman wrote a book that, if not exactly a novel, is certainly novel-like enough to merit inclusion in any history of that literary genre.  Unfortunately, The Tale of Genji is not particularly accessible to a casual reader- not only is it 1500 pages, but nearly 500 pages of that length is arguably a sequel with a different author, about the children of Genji.  I stopped reading after Genji died, because, for all it's obvious literary merit, much of The Tale of Genji is repetitive and there is little to nothing EXCEPT endless details about love affairs, calligraphy, poetry, etc.    In fact, I think the closest western analogy would be the chivalric romances of the late middle ages in France, Spain and England.   Those chivalric tales are another underrepresented proto-novel genre that is emphasized in the 2008 first revision of the 1001 Books project.


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