Monday, March 3, 2008

That's a wrap!

The challenge ended February 29th. I sincerely hope you all had a good time with it, that it wasn't one of those challenge that left you weighed with guilt at the end because you hadn't finished all the books you wanted to. :P Remember to submit your list of completed books here (or on any post you like, all come to me in e-mail) so that I can know which authors I should send on vacation and which should remain on the list for the next challenge round later this year in September 2008. Thanks to those who did, so far. Feel free to still post reviews or challenge summaries on this blog, provided that they cover books you completed before February 29th.

Thanks for the interest -- see you in six months!

Here's a nice treat to go out on. The Quarterly Conversation Spring issue features the article Over and Under in which the contributors submit their choice of overrated and underrated novels. Richard Grayson recommended the two John Galsworthy Forsyte sagas for the "underrated" category. Of our members, Becky read the Forsyte trilogies and Geranium Cat tried The Country House.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

BooksPlease - summary of the books I read

I have really enjoyed the Outmoded Authors Challenge. I have read books that I wouldn't have read otherwise and have learnt about others from the reviews by other people. Thanks to Imani, who hosted this challenge.

My initial list is here.

I read:

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I'd never read anything by Scott before and had an idea that his books would be difficult to read. I didn't find Ivanhoe difficult at all and enjoyed reading it. My thoughts on this book are here.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham, another author whose work I'd never read before. I wrote about this here.

The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. I know nothing about Manning's books. I only managed to read two books in the trilogy - The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Friends and Heroes, the third book was listed in the library catalogue but when I tried to borrow it I found that it was no longer available because the branch library which holds it had been closed due to the library cost-saving cuts. I've been listening on Radio 4 to the trilogy so I now know what happens in Friends and Heroes, but I will read the book as soon as I can get a copy.

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence. I had previously read Women in Love and The Virgin and the Gypsy, but not Sons and Lovers. I loved it - see here. I also read The Man Who Died - see here.

The only book I started and didn't finish was As a Man Grows Older by Italo Svevo. I knew nothing about this author. The library has a copy of this book which I borrowed. I don't often abandon a book but soon after I started to read it I thought it was tedious and I took it back unread. I did read the Introduction after I'd decided not to read the book and was dismayed when I read that he had been encouraged by James Joyce in his writing. I think I'd like to read Ulysses sometime, but if it's anything like Svevo's book that will be another book I'll abandon.

I'm looking forward to joining in again when the second challenge starts later this year.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Somerst Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Modern Library, 1919.

I love books written the way this one was, the kind of book that fools you into thinking you’ve picked up a somewhat gentle little thing that’s matter-of-factly presenting you with this quaint little story. Then, before you know it, it’s become much more than that, a book that portends wretchedness while throwing about some philosophical challenges. Suddenly, the bad thing you just knew was going to happen happens, and you still find yourself thinking, “Ohmigod, I can’t believe that just happened!” as you flip wildly through the pages of what has practically turned into a thriller, so eager are you to find out what’s going to happen next.

I found it nearly impossible to read this book without making comparisons to another book I love Budd Schulberg’s (he’s a somewhat outmoded author these days, isn’t it? Maybe he needs to be included in the next round of this challenge) What Makes Sammy Run? Both books display despicable characters, characters willing to step all over everyone in their lives in order to fulfill their selfish goals, through the eyes of narrators who find themselves drawn to them, not quite unwillingly. These narrators are, by turns, galled, unbelieving, and, at times, admiring. And they are fascinated, nay, obsessed, with their subjects, despite, on some level, wishing they weren’t.

I like to come to most of the novels I read a little bit blind, trying not to know too much about them (which isn’t always easy, especially given my obsession with reading dust jacket copy), and to be given my sight slowly as I make my way through the pages, until I get to the end, capable of fully seeing. Then, if the subject matter has piqued my curiosity enough, I might go see what I can find to read about it (or read the Introduction, something I never actually read before I read a novel). Thus, I avoided looking up anything about this book before I read it, and happily, my copy has long since lost its dust jacket, so I was completely blind when I turned to the first page. However, about a third of the way through it, I found myself just dying to know who Charles Strickland (the book’s despicable character) really was. Knowing that Maugham included Thomas Hardy, as well as himself, in Cakes and Ale, I was pretty sure he wasn’t just making up some artist off the top of his head. A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Strickland was based on Gaugin.

Gaugin may have been a genius, but if he was anything like this Charles Strickland, he certainly isn’t the sort of genius I’d want to know. That seems to be Maugham’s point, though, that most who could wear the label “genius” probably are pretty despicable. Given the little I know about Maugham (who was apparently a huge commercial success but never much of a critical one), I would guess that he was, on some levels, comforting himself. One can imagine his thoughts, “Well, maybe I’m not acclaimed the way William Faulkner is, but maybe I have more character than he does, than any of these so-called geniuses all the critics seem to adore.” A theme that runs throughout this book is: what does it mean to have character?

Personally, I find it hard to believe Maugham wasn’t critically acclaimed, and I have a feeling that it must have more to do with the literary fashions of the time than whether or not he deserved it. He wasn’t experimenting; he wasn’t jumping on the post-modernism bandwagon. He was merely telling a good story in a rather old-fashioned way: narrator as character in the book observes someone else and paints a portrait of that person through his eyes (and what more perfect way to tell a story about a painter?). I’ve always enjoyed this sort of use of the first-person in which it’s all about “him” or “her” as “I” see it, rather than the more standard (today, at least) all about “me.” However, we do get some wonderful glimpses of the narrator (whom I’d name, but I can’t recall anywhere in the book that his name is actually revealed. If anyone has read it and knows, please feel free to chime in). This comment of his is so endearing and tells us so much about him:

I forget who it was that recommended men, for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. (p. 13)

You really catch Maugham’s subtle sense of humor there, don’t you? He also has some great and beautiful moments of insight, such as here:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side-by-side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house. (p. 235)

Don’t you just fall on your knees in admiration for someone with such writing talent? I do. And then while I’m down there, I bang my forehead on the floor over and over, bemoaning the fact that I will never, no matter how much I practice my craft, be able to compose such passages myself. After a few minutes, though, I stop banging my head, because I discover I’m hopeful. Hopeful since I’ve realized that Maugham is a good example of one of those popular, commercially-successful authors who indicates to me that maybe I shouldn’t despair over the masses, that maybe the masses aren’t really so bad (well, at least the masses of nearly 100 years ago) if they can appreciate someone who writes like that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I can find that copy of Cakes and Ale I know I’ve got somewhere. Oh yes, and I need a good biography of Gaugin. Anyone know of such a thing?

Cross posted here.

A Rebours (Against Nature) by J K Huysmans

In at the last gasp of February (good job it's a leap year!), one last Outmoded Authors read and my February My Year of Reading Dangerously book, A Rebours by Huysmans (Penguin Classics ISBN:0-140-44763-6).

I picked this for the latter challenge because of the profoundly depressing effect that I found La Bas by Huysmans had on me; it really made me not want to read any more by him. The description of this book - a book with basically one character locking himself away from the world and giving in to all his obsessions - led me to expect it to have the same effect. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did not.

In fact I grew very fond of Des Esseintes, the main character, despite being firmly convinced that if he were a person stood in front of me I would want to slap him for his self-obsession, but from the safety of the written page I found parts of his personality to empathise with and like. He comes across as a rather pedantic, highly intellectual man with a tendancy to be a bit whiney but not essentially dangerous or unlikeable. And despite this being a major text of the decadent movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Des Esseintes' obsessions are quite sophisticated and socially acceptable - mostly ones you could talk about with your grandmother - not at all what I was expecting from the reference to the book in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The structure of the book is deliberate and slow. Here are plot spoilers for some of the main action in the book: Des Esseintes reads a book, gets a tortoise, has a drink, is ill, remembers some stuff, rearranges his library... This is not a book for thriller lovers! Each chapter looks at a particular aspect of his personality and explores it. For example, it looks at his library: why he reads the books he does, what attracts him to them, why he has turned his back on other aspects of literature. It does it in great depth and the effect is almost hypnotic. The personality of Des Esseintes surrounds you as you read and you are drawn into the hushed world he has created for himself, looking at his obsessions in detail. You may not agree with why he likes or dislikes something but you can appreciate his thought processes, and perhaps consider you own views on the subject in response.

He drank this liquid perfume from cups of that Oriental porcelain known as egg-shell china, it is so delicate and diaphonous; and just as he would never use any but these adorably dainty cups, so he insisted on plates and dishes of genuine silver-gilt, slightly worn so that the silver showed a little where the thin film of gold had been rubbed off, giving it a charming old-world look, a fatigued appearance, a moribund air.

After swallowing his last mouthful he went back to his study, instructing his man-servant to bring along the tortoise, which was still obstinately refusing to budge.

Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight icy leaf-patterns could be seen glittering on the blue-black windows, and hoar-frost sparkled like melted sugar in the hollows of the bottle glass panes, all spattered with gold.'

Although Des Esseintes is the main character and the book concentrates on exploring his thoughts, beliefs and feelings there are others present, either in the action (such as it is) or in his memories so it does not become too claustrophobic. His servants, for instance and a doctor appear at times.

It was a self-indulgent book to read, I felt. I didn't feel that I learnt anything in particular from the discussions, although there are a few Latin authors mentioned I would like to get hold of. I enjoyed it though, similarly to the way I enjoy Proust; I like to immerse myself in someone else's life and mind once in a while.

Cross-posted at Eloise by the Book Piles

Thursday, February 21, 2008

G.K. Chesterton and Martin Gardner's (ed.) The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown

Chesterton, G.K., Gardner, Martin, ed. The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

(The original book was published in 1911.)

Warning: if you’re going to read Father Brown, please suspend all disbelief. Then, fasten your seatbelt, hang on, and enjoy the ride. A friend of mine described the Father Brown stories to me as “fun.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, although after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, I was beginning to have a bit of a clue. Note, though, I said, “beginning to.” I had absolutely no idea just how much fun this book was going to be.

If you’re someone who loves classic cartoons, you might be able to understand what I mean when I say reading these stories is like watching a series of classic cartoons. You know how so much of what happens in a really good and clever cartoon is completely implausible and yet it tickles your imagination in such a way that you enjoy it immensely while marveling at the genius of its creator? Well, that’s Father Brown for you.

Imagine John Dixon Carr’s Gideon Fell plopped down in a fantasy world that’s as dark as the one in Pan’s Labyrinth but that portrays itself for all intents and purposes as the England or France or Scotland you know and recognize. I sat down with this book believing I was reading a collection of straightforward detective stories. I closed it wondering what genre this was: mystery? Fantasy? Horror?

So much like a cartoon was the book for me that I find it impossible to picture Father Brown as anything other than a cartoon caricature of a wise and portly monk. Chesterton didn’t provide us with much detailed description concerning Father Brown’s appearance, but we do know he had light brown hair, wore glasses, was not very tall, and dressed in the standard black of priests. However, I’ve got him in my brain as though he were a character in The Name of the Rose or something, un-bespectacled, and mostly bald. He wanders onto the scene, the voice of reason and sanity (except when he, as he often does, hypothesizes supernatural causes before discovering the real answer to the mystery) in this mad, mad world he inhabits. In this world, freshly severed heads are stolen from guillotine baskets to lead detectives astray, and small hammers are dropped from great heights in order to kill others. His solutions always sound perfectly sane and reasonable in such a world.

What made these stories even more fun was reading this annotated version. I had originally planned to read The Father Brown Omnibus, but when I went to check it out of the library, I discovered it was missing. I decided this one might be more interesting, and I’m sure I was right. The details and anecdotes Gardner provides in this edition certainly add to the enjoyment of reading it (although I will beg to differ with his statement that “the littlest priest is by all odds the second most famous mystery-solver [next to Sherlock Holmes, of course] in English literature.” I'm sure we can all come up with others who are more familiar at this point). His notes certainly helped illuminate parts of the text that would have been lost on me without them. The most delightful note he provides, though, is his explanation of who Waldo and Mildred D’Avigdor of Chesterton’s dedication are (long-time friends). Gardner includes the letter Chesterton wrote to Mildred announcing his engagement to Frances, his wife. This letter can’t help but endear any but the most stone-hearted reader to the writer (we all know that I of the marshmallow heart was completely touched). It’s too long to quote here, but I promise you it’s well worth your finding a copy of this book to read.

Those of you with less of an interest in religion than I have might find Father Brown a bit annoying at times (but you’re forewarned, at least. After all, he is a priest. I much prefer fictional priests who spout off religious dogma over fictional characters I don’t expect to do so). He definitely needs to be put in his historical place and time. The anti-Semitism bothered me the most, as it does with everything I read that was written in the early part of the twentieth century, knowing as I do what was on the horizon. However, I find his Catholic anti-Calvinism merely amusing. And you just know the atheists and cultists can’t be up to any good, right? (I will spare you my thoughts on bigoted “Christians” here.) He’s also unapologetically racist, but that, too, is nothing new for books written in this era.

My vote is that Chesterton be removed from “outmoded author” status. Let’s start a neo-Chesterton movement. I’m now ready to move on to some of the books in this edition’s bibliography, and I’m sure I’m going to start forcing him on friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in bookstores, because, well, you know, I’m a tiny bit passionate when it comes to books and authors I love.

Cross-posted here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Razor's Edge

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham is the first Maugham I have ever read. I've had every intention of reading Maugham for years but if it weren't for the Outmoded Author Challenge it could have been many more years before I got around to him. Razor's Edge was first published in 1944 and was Maugham's last major novel. The book takes place mostly in Europe, particularly in Paris, between the wars. All of the main characters but for the narrator are American. The narrator, a British writer who happens to be named Maugham, tells the stories of Elliott, Isabel, and Larry. There are other characters whose stories also get told, but these three are the main ones.

Elliott is a rich American who lives in Paris. His goal in life is to achieve social eminence. Appearances are everything to him. You have to be seen wearing the right clothes with the right people in the right places. Isabel is Elliott's niece and at the beginning of the story is only twenty and engaged to Larry. She is clever and pretty and is a definite product of her wealthy upbringing. She doesn't question the values of her set, nor does she consider that there might be more to life than marrying, making loads of money, having children and giving dinner parties. This of course puts her in conflict with Larry. Larry lied about his age and ran off to fly planes during World War I. During the war one of Larry's friends gave his life for Larry's. This had a profound affect on Larry who was not able to return to America and live a "normal" life afterwards.

Larry has a small income, enough to get by without working, and so spends his time "loafing" as he calls it. But he is far from loafing. He is searching for answers to life's big questions. He wants to know if there is a God and he wants to know why there is evil in the world. His loafing involves spending hours reading. When Larry turns down a job in his best friend's father's brokerage firm and decides to live in Paris for a couple of years, it pretty much spells doom for him and Isabel. To her credit she accepts his move to Paris. However, she fully expects that this is just a phase and after he is done sowing his wild oats or whatever he's doing--she doesn't understand Larry's existential crisis--she is certain he will come back to Chicago, take the job at the brokerage and make lots of money. This, as she sees it, is his duty. When the break up comes it is an amicable parting and the two remain friends.

Over the course of the book we follow Elliott who gets richer and richer and even manages to sell all his stocks and buy gold before the market crashes. He achieves the heights of society. But in the end, when he is old and near death, there are few who truly care about him.

Isabel marry's Gray, Larry's best friend and the son of the owner of the brokerage firm. Gray makes loads of money. Isabel has two daughters and gives tasteful dinner parties. They lose everything in the stock market crash. They move to Paris where they are supported by Elliott for a couple of years until Gray recovers his health. At which point they move back to America and Gray makes back all the money he lost in the market and then some. But though Isabel is fond of her husband, she wishes he were Larry.

Larry travels Europe and Asia, has some interesting experiences and reads lots. He winds up finding enlightenment in an ashram in India. Larry is happy and content and at peace. He is a good, kind, caring person. He is the kind of person we all wish we could be and try really hard to be but always fall short. He is not perfect, but he is a representation of what we might call our better selves. He is not a symbol or an allegory or anything though, he isn't a Christ figure, he's just one of those rare people who are truly and only themselves all the time.

With these three characters and all the others I haven't mentioned, Maugham shows us various lives and their outcomes and leaves it to us to make the value judgment. He does not condemn Elliott or mock Isabel, nor does he lift Larry above all as a shining example. What he does do, however, is show that we are all looking for something, our lives are all a journey toward a goal, and he shows these various lives and journeys and what it means to achieve that which is desired. No one's journey is easy.

The book was enjoyable reading. There was only one spot near the end where Larry was explaining Hinduism to Maugham that things veered into a bit of a lecture. And while I found it annoying that Maugham was the narrator and kept making comments about how he came to know certain pieces of information even though he wasn't present at the time they happened, I got used to it for the most part. Razor's Edge is not a deep, philosophical novel, it's more philosophy lite. As such, it makes the reader contemplative but not overly so. Still, it's better than a good deal of contemporary fiction that aims for the same thing Maugham did. Why he doesn't get read more often is a mystery. Perhaps it is time for a Maugham revival.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Olivia Manning - The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.