Monday, June 24, 2019

People in the Summer Night: An Epic Suite by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

Rural Finnish montage
Frans Eemil Sillanpää
Finnish author Frans Eemil Sillanpää won the 1939 Nobel Prize in Literature and is the only writer from his nation so far to have done so. As a result, he is quite beloved in his home country and even has an asteroid named after him. His work is little known among English-language readers, however, as translations are hard to come by. One work of Sillanpää’s that is available in English is his novel People in the Summer Night. Originally published in 1934, this work was published in English in 1966 by the University of Wisconsin Press as part of their Nordic Translation Series. Googling the series name will take you to the UW Libraries website, where all 11 books in the series, including this one, can be read online for free.

In People in the Summer Night, Sillanpää paints a vivid portrait of a community in rural Finland. A number of farms surround a lake, and the residents are equally apt to travel by boat, horse, or automobile. This picturesque landscape is populated by landowners, tenant farmers, and rafters floating timber to market. On summer weekends, city dwellers come to spend time with friends and family or simply to enjoy country life as tourists. During the summer months, Finland is far enough north that the sun never completely sets, and the strange midnight twilight lends a mysterious air to the goings-on in this region.

Sillanpää constructs the narrative in 48 short chapters. Despite the book’s relative brevity, it features a large ensemble cast of characters. The English edition begins with a list of characters, which is useful for telling everyone straight, particularly since Finnish names and their variations can be a bit confusing. The structure of the narrative is more of a montage than a linear story. Sillanpää frequently jumps back and forth between different characters, whose storylines sometimes intersect, like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine in miniature. It doesn’t always appear that the chapters are in chronological order either, as sometimes it seems one has to jump back in time an hour or two to pick up the thread of a story that was previously left hanging. This fragmentation of perspective brings a stylistic modernism to what is otherwise largely a naturalistic depiction of the environs and it inhabitants. Sillanpää’s prose shifts between beautifully poetic descriptions of nature and insightful glimpses into the psychology of his characters. The prose isn’t always easy to follow, but I suspect that may be due in part to the translation by Alan Blair.

The action of the novel takes place almost entirely within one summer night. Two young lovers from the city enjoy a burgeoning romance in the rural countryside. A pregnant woman goes into labor while her husband is absent from home. A marriage suffers from the brutish and abusive behavior of the husband. An artist rows the waters of the lake seeking inspiration. A stoic old charcoal burner plies his ancient craft. A farmer’s wife seeks solace in the company of another while her distant husband is away. A murder is foreshadowed. These are some of the intimate dramas that contribute to the collective history of this fictional rural community. Though the setting often seems idyllic, the plot rings true as authentic incidents of real life.

If People in the Summer Night is any indication, Sillanpää’s work deserves to be better known worldwide. As far as I know, only three of his books have been translated into English: Meek Heritage (1919, available at the Internet Archive), The Maid Silja (1931), and this one.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

Fire and Ice (The Long Journey, Volume 1) by Johannes V. Jensen

Darwinian epic of Scandinavian genesis
Danish author Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950) won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. His magnum opus was a series of six novels, completed from 1908 to 1922, collectively titled The Long Journey. In 1923 this work was published in English translation as a three-volume set. The first of these three volumes, Fire and Ice, is comprised, appropriately enough, of Jensen’s Book One: Fire and Book Two: Ice. As a whole, The Long Journey is a historical epic chronicling the development of European man from prehistoric times to the voyages of Christopher Columbus. Jensen creates an alternative to the biblical account of mankind’s creation and early history, one based on rationalistic scientific concepts like Darwinian evolution. His intention is not to create a narrative that is rigorously accurate either scientifically or historically, but rather to craft a sort of secular mythology stylistically akin to the Judeo-Christian Old Testament.

The narrative begins prior to the dawn of Homo Sapiens, when furry, tree-dwelling primates first opted for life on the ground. These proto-humans dwell in a European jungle where their lives center around a volcano called Gunung Api that they both fear and worship as a god. One precocious member of the herd, however, learns to tame the dreaded fire by bringing it down from the mountain and putting it to the service of man. This early hominid Prometheus, named Fyr, is rewarded for his achievement by assuming godlike status within his tribe.

Book Two: Ice jumps ahead an unspecified number of generations and focuses on one of Fyr’s descendants named Carl. The volcano has gone dormant, and the climate is becoming colder. Glaciers descend on Europe as an ice age sets in. While most of the humans migrate to the South, Carl, who has been outcast from his people for having committed a transgression, sets off to the North to live amid the ice. Like their ancestor Fyr, Carl and his descendants use their ingenuity to produce technological advancements that help mankind adapt and evolve. To tell his story, Jensen attributes millennia worth of human progress to a handful of fictional geniuses. Over the course of the story, the mythos of The Long Journey encompasses not only the taming of fire, but also the development of religion and social inequality, the origins of hunting and agriculture, the building of ships and the invention of the wheel, and the spawning of the various races of man.

In this specifically Scandinavian Genesis, the birthplace of humanity is in southern Sweden, just a short boat ride from Jensen’s native Denmark. The underlying thesis to The Long Journey is that those who fled from the ice age to tropical climes became indolent and weak while those who stayed in the North to contend with the cold became heartier, stronger, and smarter. There is some potential for racism here, obviously, but Fire and Ice comes across as more of an expression of intense nationalistic pride. Jensen’s Nordic bias is not any more offensive than the many religions in the world that consider their followers to be “the chosen people.” The difference, of course, is that this is a secular creation story, and what makes it great literature is how Jensen expertly mixes naturalistic scientific theory with romantic grandeur of mythic proportions.

Given the subject matter, it is not surprising that The Long Journey is little known outside of Scandinavia, but Jensen’s writing is powerful, and this fascinating book merits a wider audience. Jensen won his Nobel for a reason, and judging from this excellent novel, he deserved it. I am very much looking forward to the next two volumes of The Long Journey.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Early 20th century African American urban naturalism
Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and writer of short stories. Born in Ohio, he was the son of former slaves. The Sport of the Gods, published in 1902, was his final novel, though he continued to publish poetry until 1906 when he died from tuberculosis at age 33.

The Sport of the Gods begins at an unspecified location in the American South. Berry Hamilton and his wife Fannie are former slaves who, following emancipation, found work as butler and housekeeper to a wealthy white landowner named Maurice Oakley. The Hamiltons live in a cottage on the Oakley estate with their teenaged children Joe and Kitty. One day Mr. Oakley’s younger brother, a guest at the estate, reports some money has been stolen from his room. Despite his twenty years of service, Berry is accused of the theft, based on a mixture of circumstantial evidence and Mr. Oakley’s refusal to believe a white gentleman would have committed such a crime. Though a detective expresses doubt as to the butler’s guilt, Mr. Oakley demands that Berry be prosecuted, and Berry experiences firsthand that the Southern justice system has little sympathy for a black man.

This all happens very quickly in the first few chapters of the novel. The story of Berry’s crime and punishment runs more toward melodrama than realism. It feels predictable and a bit rushed, as if Dunbar wished to get the crime out of the way so that he can focus on the book’s main concern, which is what happens to the Hamiltons after Berry is accused of the crime. The entire family are branded as outcasts. Joe, who is trained as a barber, can’t find work with either the white community, who considers him a criminal by association, or the black community, who resents the Hamiltons’ former association with the wealthy whites. Unable to make a living in their hometown, the family decides to follow the path of so many emancipated blacks and migrate north to New York City.

I’m a fan of naturalist literature for the way it frankly chronicles the living conditions and social forces at work in modern society. Relatively few African American writers around 1900 received positive recognition from the white literary establishment, so discovering Dunbar was a pleasant surprise. The Sport of the Gods, however, doesn’t really capture the African American experience in the same way that the novels of Charles W. Chesnutt do. Instead, the narrative that Dunbar creates with this novel could easily apply to just about any member of the poor working class. If there is a message here, it is not racially specific but rather that “Big cities breed bad morals.” Other naturalist writers have done a better job of illustrating a descent into alcoholism or prostitution, such as Emile Zola in L’Assomoir or Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie. In The Sport of the Gods, a much briefer work, this moral decline feels rushed, and the social commentary has to compete for space and attention with the potboiler plot of the legal drama.

Despite its flaws, this novel is deeply affecting at times. It may not be a masterpiece of American literary realism, but it is certainly worth a read for those interested in the literature of this time period. Given the obstacles Dunbar faced, his literary accomplishments are impressive, and his body of work certainly deserves further investigation.
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Monday, June 17, 2019

Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan

Interdisciplinary grab bag
Broca’s Brain, a book by astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan, was published in 1979. The title refers to the 19th century French neuroscientist Paul Broca, who is discussed in the first chapter. The subtitle, Reflections on the Romance of Science, is not entirely successful as a blanket statement sufficiently generic enough to encompass the contents of what is essentially a grab bag of 25 miscellaneous articles, essays, and lectures that have been repurposed into a book. The writings collected in this volume were previously published from 1974 to 1979 and vary widely in subject matter, interest, and degree of difficulty.

The chapters are divided into categories, but even those are loose enough to be almost arbitrary. One chapter is a brief biological sketch of Albert Einstein that focuses as much on his political and humanitarian efforts as his scientific accomplishments. Another chapter is a critical essay on science fiction in which Sagan names some of his favorite novels. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to Sagan’s bread and butter, planetary science. The contents of this book were written at a time when the Viking spacecraft had recently landed on Mars and Voyager had not yet reached Saturn, so most of Sagan’s speculations on the solar system have since been either confirmed or disproved by subsequent unmanned space exploration. Sagan also devotes much discussion to the possibility of life on other worlds and our ability to find it, and his erudite thoughts on these topics are still very much relevant today. Though Sagan was known for the accessibility of his scientific writings, not every piece in this collection was intended for the general reader. His chapter on the history of 19th century astronomy, for example, is clearly aimed at practitioners in that field, and one would probably need a master’s degree in the subject to fully understand everything the author is saying.

A section of the book entitled Paradoxers includes chapters in which Sagan refutes various forms of faux science. Sagan was one of the world’s foremost advocates for science over superstition and mysticism. While I admire him for taking on that role, those reading a book by Sagan have probably already made up their minds in favor of science. The biggest disappointment with Broca’s Brain is that Sagan spends twenty percent of the entire book disproving the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky, who made all kinds of ridiculous and unsubstantiated claims about the history of the solar system. There is also a chapter about a man who declared himself the second coming of Christ. Someone had to step up and answer these false prophets, and I am glad Sagan took up the challenge, but I didn’t feel these chapters were a productive use of my reading time. Rest assured, however, that elsewhere in the book Sagan more thoughtfully and philosophically addresses the contentious relationship between science and religion, proving himself one of rationalism’s most outspoken and eloquent proponents.

After reading Broca’s Brain, I would not hesitate to call Sagan a genius. The man can write intelligently and articulately about any subject he puts his mind to, within or without the realm of science. Even so, I can’t say I enjoyed every one of the 25 essays included here, for the reasons discussed above. Still, I’m glad I read the book, and overall this collection of Sagan’s writings on the wonders of the universe left me with a profound feeling of secular inspiration. If that’s what he means by the “romance of science,” then so be it.
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Friday, June 14, 2019

Jack London: Sailor on Horseback by Irving Stone

A superb telling of an amazing life
Jack London: Sailor on Horseback, a biography by Irving Stone, was originally published in 1938. It began as an authorized biography when Stone was invited by London’s widow, Charmian Kittredge London, to the London family ranch in California to utilize the family’s personal archives. Later Charmian withdrew her blessing and disowned the biography, however, when Stone dug a little too deep. I have read several biographies of London, as well as his own autobiographical writings like John Barleycorn, The Road, and The Cruise of the Snark. I had previously avoided Stone’s book because I thought it was a biographical novel, and I had read some disparaging comments about its level of fictionalization. After reading it, however, I discovered it to be a work of nonfiction, and it turned out to be a truly enjoyable and riveting read.

Despite accusations against Stone by Charmian and others, I didn’t find anything particularly sensationalized about Stone’s account. London’s life was so sensational in the first place, it would be difficult to write about it without making it sound sensationalized. For the most part the portrayal of London is a positive one, though ultimately tragic. Stone clearly admires his subject, but this account is not merely an adulatory tribute. Stone draws attention to London’s faults, but does not delve too deeply into them. London’s white supremacist views on race, for example, are mentioned but not examined in great depth. Perhaps that just wasn’t a hot-button issue in 1938, and London’s opinions on race were certainly not uncommon for Americans of his era. As far as London’s dark side goes, Stone mainly emphasizes his childlike handling of financial matters, his naive trust in friends and family, his marital infidelities, and his tendency toward bouts of crippling depression. London’s alcoholism is also dealt with frankly, but not to the extent of its coverage in John Barleycorn.

It is no wonder that Charmian hated this book, because it really portrays her in a negative light. In this account she comes across as conniving, smothering, unattractive, and infantile. Stone not only holds her responsible for breaking up London’s first marriage but also for negatively altering London’s literary style in the latter half of his career. This book provides a clearer, more thorough insight into London’s two marriages than any other biography that I’ve encountered, including Charmian’s own The Book of Jack London, which is biased, disingenuous, and worst of all, dull. Whereas Charmian tried to hide Jack’s illegitimate birth in her book, Stone brings the facts out into the open. She was also outraged that Stone made London’s death seem like a suicide, but a century later scholars are still debating the exact cause of death.

In my opinion, from a scholarly standpoint, the best biography of London, in terms of comprehensiveness, depth of research, and just good writing, is Earle Labor’s 2013 book Jack London: An American Life. However, for the average reader who just wants to learn about London’s fascinating life, doesn’t care about literary criticism or Jack London Studies, and doesn’t need footnotes or a bibliography, Sailor on Horseback is really the best way to go. It is an excellent read for novices or diehard fans alike. If all you know about London is The Call of the Wild and White Fang, you will be amazed at the breadth, depth, and variety of his adventures and achievements. I have been an avid fan of London’s writing for over 30 years and have read everything he ever published, but Stone’s account of his life has really renewed my interest in this important author and remarkable man. Reading Sailor on Horseback makes me want to go back and reread some of my favorite London novels and stories and do further research into his amazing life.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Stark Munro Letters by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The finances and philosophy of a young doctor
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known, of course, as the author of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and he also wrote many well-known works of fiction in the science fiction, horror, and war genres. In addition to being a successful author, Conan Doyle was also a physician, and his two careers come together in what is likely the least known category of his bibliography, his medical fiction. Among his writings on doctors and medicine are the 1894 short story collection Round the Red Lamp and his 1895 novel The Stark Munro Letters.

The latter work is an epistolary novel, written in the form of letters from recent medical school graduate Dr. John Stark Munro to his former classmate Dr. Herbert Swanborough. The novel only presents one side of the correspondence; the reader never sees Swanborough’s replies. In his letters, Munro confides to Swanborough his struggles in finding gainful employment in his chosen profession. Starting a career as a doctor was apparently very difficult in Victorian England, even to the point where Munro finds himself facing abject poverty as he strives to establish himself in a profitable practice. Conan Doyle takes a predominantly lighthearted approach to these struggles, however. Various opportunities present themselves to Munro and eventually fail to pan out, often with humorous results. Much of Munro’s correspondence is devoted to his relationship with another former classmate, Dr. James Cullingworth, a blustery, greedy, unethical doctor who invites Munro to assist him in his practice. The narrative does not really contain much medical content at all, but mostly focuses on the business aspects of running a doctor’s office. Munro’s finances are examined in detail as he sets about renting a suitable home and office, purchasing medicines, and hiring a servant.

A great deal of Munro’s correspondence, however, is devoted to a more surprising subject: religion. Through his letters to Swanborough, Munro expresses his doubts about Christian dogma and formulates his own personal philosophy of God based on his scientific perspective as a physician. These philosophical musings are often more interesting than the medical story, because one can only assume that Munro speaks for Conan Doyle. Thus the reader gets a fair amount of insight into the author’s views on religion, which seem to fall somewhere between Enlightenment era deism and Spinozan pantheism. Munro does not criticize organized religions, however, and like a good Victorian acknowledges the usefulness of all churches in the maintaining of a moral society.

The ending of the book is utterly predictable, since so many of Conan Doyle’s books seem to end the same way. There is a brief but surprising epilogue, however, that is truly unexpected and elevates this otherwise prosaic work above mediocrity. Overall, there is nothing particularly good about The Stark Munro Letters, but there is nothing offensively bad about it either. This book is simply a mildly pleasant and entertaining read, one crafted by an expert storyteller but not one of his better efforts. The more you like Conan Doyle’s writing, the more you will enjoy the book, but casual dabblers in the author’s works should probably stick to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Professor Challenger.
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Monday, June 10, 2019

Essential Captain America, Volume 6 by Jack Kirby, et al.

From classic to comical
Essential Captain America, Volume 6 reprints issues 206 to 230 of Marvel Comics’ Captain America series, which were originally published from February 1977 to February of 1979. It also includes Captain America Annual #4 and an issue of The Incredible Hulk (#232) that concludes a Cap and Hulk crossover.

The previous book, Essential Captain America, Volume 5, was written and drawn almost entirely by Jack Kirby, and is a truly excellent collection, the best in this series so far. Kirby’s run continues for almost the first half of Volume 6, ending with issue 214. Again, his bizarre stories and bombastic art are truly a treat to behold. Issue 208 features the debut of one of Kirby’s most inventive creations, Arnim Zola, the half-man, half-robot Nazi scientist with his face in his chest. Zola is a master of biological engineering, which gives Kirby the opportunity to indulge in all kinds of freaky creatures to torment Cap and the Falcon. Kirby also handles Annual #4, in which Cap encounters Magneto. Whether Cap is facing sci-fi monsters from space or spies, assassins, and terrorists threatening democracy, his adventures are always exceptional in the hands of Kirby.

After Kirby’s departure from the title, Sal Buscema takes over the art and does his usual admirably decent job. Authorial duties are taken over by a succession of short-term writers, including Roy Thomas, Don Glut, and Steve Gerber. In most cases, they really don’t do justice to the character, and the stories often get rather ridiculous. Cap goes on a search for his past, because apparently he underwent memory loss when he took the super soldier serum, and doesn’t remember anything about his life as Steve Rogers. Since when? That was never mentioned before in the previous 150 issues, but the writers wanted an excuse to mess with Cap’s back story. One particularly silly plot involves a mad Nazi scientist who transfers his own consciousness into a 12-foot-tall Captain America robot, and then, not surprisingly, regrets the decision when he realizes what a freak he is. After issue 217 the Falcon disappears, meaning the writers just stop including him in the stories. Several issues goes by before Cap notices he’s gone, and then a kidnapping is drummed up to explain his absence. By that time, with issue 223, the title of the comic has already changed from Captain America and the Falcon to just plain Captain America.

The quality of the stories in this volume vary widely in quality from the superb (Kirby’s work) to the dismal. Towards the end of the volume things perk up a bit with a multi-issue arc from writer Roger McKenzie. Cap and SHIELD face a mysterious organized crime ring called the Corporation. Both sides have their share of assorted super-powered agents, which culminates in a big battle royale. Things get really exciting when the Hulk joins in for the final two-issue crossover. After some of the poorer stories, it is good to see this inconsistent volume wrapped up on a high note. Volume 6 has some pretty good issues in it, but it is clearly inferior to Volume 5. I am looking forward to Volume 7 and the coming of John Byrne.
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