Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reading List: Far from the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd
by Thomas Hardy

After Jude the Obscure, Hardy has my everlasting devotion as a treasured writer.  It is not a condemnation, then, to say that this is the first time since I read Jude some years ago that I have gotten around to reading him again.  Rather, it is a testament to a defining experience, and a belief that one book would have been suffice to appreciate Hardy's talent.  Few writers have one great book in them, that is to say, and because there are so many books to read, it can sometimes be enough to read the one great book you've discovered from them.  Eventually, of course, there are further opportunities without an outright pursuit of them to read such authors again, and here I am, finally having reached such a point with Mr. Hardy.

Thoughts on After the Revolution

After the Revolution is Joseph Ellis's meditation on the formative development of American culture.  That's the ambition, anyway.  Mostly it's a repetition of wild ambitions and popular beliefs that didn't happen quite the way our forefathers imagined, mostly because they didn't seem to recognize how messy their emerging country really was.

I need to stress that Ellis has a terrific thesis, but he seems to have been overwhelmed by the project.  He devotes two chapters and most of the words in the books to a few lines often repeated with little variation, that many colonists and Western civilization as a whole pretty much assumed that the center of culture was soon going to plant itself in America, and that maybe this didn't happen because many people believed that this only happened in societies on the decline.  If you want to know how messed up and conflicted thought was at the time, this is a wonderful illustration of contradiction.  Each of the four men Ellis writes about were eventually swept up in patriotism or nationalism, and were completely blinded by their belief that they could have their cake and eat it, too.

Ellis published After the Revolution in 1979, when he would have been thirty-six, roughly five years older than I am now.  It is perhaps not surprising that he made his real contributions to literature nearly twenty years later, when he finally got to the business of writing about the founding fathers themselves (notably in Founding Fathers, which I read upon its release in 2000), since he seems not have warmed to the task quite yet.  Clearly having done his research, Ellis met his failing in his inability to write anything substantial either about his topic or his four subjects, each of whom are buried in an effort to crudely match his thesis to their lives, touching on numerous contradictions but failing to reconcile them, believing that the period in which they lived adequately explains how they entered and failed to emerge from what was in essence a national quagmire and development.

I had no initial inkling that his aim was to expound on the formative steps of American culture, certainly not from the back cover, which makes the book sound exactly like Founding Brothers, for the generation that succeeded the Revolution.  Yet each of these lives cross paths with the war, to varying effect, and if anything speak to a population that while growing was still small enough for everyone to pretty much know everyone, so that the new country comes off as more of a small town than an influential nation.  That would be why it was hard to get anything done, once the truly meaningful task of codifying its own existence was accomplished, a task that seems incidental to the narrative in this book.

Ellis lacks perspective, which is presumably the opposite of what After the Revolution was meant to accomplish.  Still, it is a fine survey of the times, and covers details your ordinary schooling experience will likely have ignored.  It's just, it could have been better.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reading List: After the Revolution

After the Revolution
by Joseph Ellis

The author of Founding Brothers, intimate portraits of America's leading generation, writes in this book about the generation that lived in the Revolution's aftermath.  I guess originally the book was on a more general topic, but Ellis has refined his focus on the arts, which many believed would soon belong to America, even before the Revolution, as a sort of birthright of civilization's progress moving westward, as it has through at least one interpretation of history.  The book contains another series of portraits, this time of artists who believed that the time was come for greatness, and their dawning disappointment when it didn't.  Anyway, should be interesting.

Thoughts on The Scarlet Pimpernel

Sometimes the idea of a thing is far better than the thing itself.

Among other examples that come to mind, The Scarlet Pimpernel must be added to that list.  This is a classic piece of literature that is a cross between the swashbuckling literature of the 19th Century and the superhero genre of the 20th.  It is, in fact, the bridge between them.  But it is probably inferior to both.

Baroness Orczy brought her multicultural background to the story of a member of the British elite who chooses to aide his French counterparts during the Reign of Terror, saving them from the guillotine that famously claimed the head of, among other, Marie Antoinette.  Sir Percy Blakeney is a fop who doesn't have the respect of his French bride, who is the real star of the story, whom we follow as she comes to England and almost immediately runs afoul of French inspector Chauvelin.  Lady Blakeney is repeatedly referred to as the shining intellect of Europe, yet Orczy doesn't really illustrate how, except to repeat the same description countless times in a melodramatic narrative that could have stood as the inspiration for 24 a century ahead of time, dragging out a series of events that take several usually short chapters to happen.  About halfway through, Lady Blakeney realizes the truth of her husband, who is at the center of an entire league trying to undo the foolish savagery of a revolution.  (A pimpernel, by the way, is a flower, which the mysterious hero uses as a calling card, much as Batman does today with bats.)

It's funny that I've read this book after Emile Zola's Germinal (or even Martin Millar's Lux the Poet, which revolves around a riot caused by social injustice), since it's another example of the way we tend to react to things like Occupy Wall Street, the most recent exhibit of the inequalities people are always trying to address in some definitive way.  Yes, it's frustrating, but we have many examples of the wrong way to deal with it, and The Scarlet Pimpernel is a curious addition to this literature, showing sympathy for "the other side" through a hero who seems to contradict every expectation.  The introduction makes much of the fact that Lady Blakeney is the author's surrogate, but that doesn't mean it makes the story interesting.  The title character and plot are interesting, the execution is not.  It is worth considering in the grand scheme of the tradition in which it fits, but it should not be remembered for any real contribution.  Zorro, Batman, and Iron Man each have more to say than Orczy, who seems to have wrapped herself up in a fantasy about horrid times a century in her past.

It would have been terrific to report that this was a rousing and relevant piece of fiction, but that's only the facade, the Percy Blakeney veneer.  There's no Pimpernel to be found here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reading List: The Scarlet Pimpernel

The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Baroness Orczy

One of the things that made Peanuts stand out was that while Charles Schultz was quite capable of mastering the standard comic strip formula, he regularly stretched beyond its tropes to create characters who weren't simply absorbed in their own fictional lives.  Schroeder's obsession with Beethoven was the most obvious manifestation of this, but Schultz is also responsible for my first encounters with the name "Scarlet Pimpernel."  It's probably one of the more antiquated heroic epics, featuring a name that means practically nothing today, but for some reason I became interested in it a few years back, when I was working on a heroic epic of my own, and I'm glad that I went out and bought it and added the book to my Reading List, because otherwise I might've forgotten all about it again, because as I said, it's hard to take just the name seriously these days.  At any rate, I shall soon have some thoughts about the actual book to share...

Thoughts on Lux the Poet

Imagine putting Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Douglas Adams, and Neil Gaiman in a blender. You may end up with a writer like Martin Millar.

Lux the Poet features as its main character...Lux, who is a poet.  Picture if you will a young Zaphod Beeblebrox (besides "Young Zaphod Plays It Safe"), who is self-obsessed and completely delusional, wandering around a city-wide riot and trying to get as much attention with as many lies as possible, failing miserably, and stumbling into an assortment of interesting characters, not the least being Pearl, the object of his affection.  (Yeah, you can imagine that not being such an honor, can't you?)

Actually, it's exactly a Dave Barry novel, if Dave Barry were British instead of suffering in Florida through regular inanity he nonetheless turns into brilliant comic material.  So there's a number of ways you can relate to Millar as a writer, but what you really need to know is that he's entertaining and perhaps working toward a masterpiece.

It's also true that he's not quite there yet.  His cleverness can also be compared to the ideas young writers have when they don't really have anything to say, and so they make up as much nonsense as possible just to make it interesting, and Lux reads a lot like that, too, and so Millar is as much a writer with great potential and not inconsiderable skill, but also someone who's incredibly immature in ways he doesn't yet realize, winging it with a desperation that's catchy.  Hey, Neil Gaiman is a fan, so you know he's doing something right.  I just hope that he gets around to doing it better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reading List: Lux the Poet

Lux the Poet
by Martin Millar

I'm always on the lookout for writers who can truly let loose with some fun storytelling, and so it was with considerable relief that a suggestion from a former coworker turned me on to Martin Millar, who seems to be exactly that.  Lux was not suggested as an ideal starting point, but it was the selection that spoke to me as the only logical choice.  He's basically a street-level Neil Gaiman (a great supporter of the author's), Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett.

Thoughts on Germinal

Like Thomas Hardy and Dostoevsky, Emile Zola was a writer in the 19th Century looking to examine the individual in the midst of social change.  Where Hardy and Dostoevsky concentrated on the individual, Zola centered on social change.  Germinal is a book the Occupy Wall Street 99%ers would certainly find intriguing, blending the various reform movements of that period into a central thesis of the plight between the rich and the poor, the idea of revolution that was still then possible in the Western world, and the rights of individuals to control their own destinies.

Focusing on the mining industry in his native France, Zola introduces a complete stranger to a community that has for a hundred years been working at the same playbook, with one family in particular representing the need to sacrifice succeeding generations to the basic cost of surviving, breeding children for miserable profit and labor and ignoring the debilitating health concerns that have slowly ground each of them down to little better than savages, and being represented as the middle class, no less!  Etienne Lantier is a member of a different clan entirely, Zola's pet family he writes about in a whole series of books, none of them as wretched as depicted in Germinal, each of them representing the different aspects of life at that time, all on a theme of inheritance.  Published in 1885, Germinal is Zola's best shot at immortality, and the sad part is that it's not only obscure today, but relevant to the point of being moot, exploring everything but what it actually says, even though one character voices the reality that social justice is a concern that was struck down a generation before Etienne came to town, and many times before that, well before the current political regime, before the last revolution, before this epoch, and certainly well before Darwin stuck a label of "survival of the fittest" on all of humanity.

Selfish interests pervade every character of Germinal, as well as a refusal to believe anything but what they already believe.  Etienne, for example, was ready to revolt before he ever entered the monstrous Voreux mine, and spends most of his time not thinking about it in one of the book's few glossed-over periods, only to emerge as exactly the radical looking for a strike that he already was.  By the time he has helped decimate the family that readily took him in, he leaves it behind, admitting that he finds these people revolting, and that he has survived the experience looking simply to advocate the same principals that led to such needless disaster, believing as Zola apparently does that the revolution would ultimately be successful.  In 2012, I can assure you, the revolution was certainly not televised.

Revolutions were such a common element of Zola's day that they had gradually lost all their effectiveness, a fact that he does not seem to have realized.  That's why a book like Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, written a century after the fact, can dance around the absurdity of it rather than simply wallow in its misery.  Germinal is an epic that deserves a rightful place alongside the French literature of its day, but it lacks any real concern for any of its characters, even Etienne, who barely registers as human, and in fact disappears for long stretches at a time, provoking and then surviving by sheer force of will disasters of unimaginable magnitude, many things that on a human scale can be seen coming from a mile away, and with regular human obstinacy play out without much concern for the consequences.  It's comically naturalistic, launching a literary method that is still championed to this day, to the detriment of anyone actually understanding anything.

Many of its readers, then as now, will probably not really relate to Germinal.  They are reading a book.  I grew up in a family that fought its hardest to avoid the kind of fate that unfolds for everyone in Zola's story, but the fact is, that world still exists, where people fight hard to ignore realities and most of the time are able to outrun them.  I'm probably the one closest to these characters, and closest to Etienne, who deludes himself into thinking education is a way out of this mess, and even though the reader sees how wrong he is, he doesn't, and the book ends with the reader allowing themselves, as he does, that this isn't the case, even now, when all his plans have come to ruin.  I am not advocating the abolishing of education, which would be silly, but so is Zola's message that knowledge is enough of a step in the right direction (the title is meant to convey this as much as the myth of dragon's teeth).  Knowledge alone only makes one aware.  If one does not know what to do with knowledge, they will come up with a lot of ridiculous notions, which they can do without knowing anything at all.  It's the ability to reason, which several of Etienne's conspirators believe they're doing, that really proves the difference, the ability to think critically.  Anyone will be able to see exactly where Germinal is headed, and like a horror movie want to scream and wake the characters up, but to no avail.  That's what it's like in the real world, too.

Zola became a reluctant social advocate at the end of his life, famously penning the open letter "J'accuse" after the French government wrongfully convicted a man they called a traitor, and it's rumored he paid for it with his life.  He might have left a bigger impact if works like Germinal had better understood what they were doing.  He was a writer who was frequently controversial, and he helped break a lot of ground, but not with dragon's teeth.  Germinal gestates in the popular imagination as a warning about futility, about the failure of the imagination to conceive of a world that plays by a new set of rules, rather than wallowing in revolutions that are no longer relevant.  If all you do is challenge the establishment, if all you want to do is replace the establishment, then you're doomed to failure from the start.  Most of the characters in this book blunder from faulty reasoning to faulty reasoning without making any attempts to correct it, and we're supposed to sympathize with those victims of injustice.  Zola presents them as complicit in their own misery, and most of them completely uncomprehending of that fact, including Etienne.

Germinal is a terrific read, and Zola employs a fair number of interesting storytelling techniques, but as a philosophy and a lasting message, it comes up wanting, and so it's no surprise that readers have gradually left it behind.  There are no characters truly worth rooting for, and that's the most damning thing about it.  You'd think now if at any time it might have enjoyed a popular revival, but I guess I'm glad that didn't happen.
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