Friday, September 20, 2019

The Inheritors by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford

Least exciting conspiracy ever
Published in 1901, The Inheritors is a collaborative novel by English authors Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. The story is narrated by Arthur, who is also referred to by his title of landed nobility, Etchingham Granger. While touring a historic cathedral, Arthur meets an attractive woman in his tour group and begins flirting with her. He initially takes her for an American, but she nonchalantly informs him that she actually hails from the fourth dimension. Her purpose for coming to our world is to maneuver the overthrow of the established societal order and thereby become one of the powerful few who get to “inherit the earth.” She invites Arthur to be her toady and convinces him to let her pose as his sister. He acquiesces because he hopes to sleep with her, but the arrangement soon becomes uncomfortable when her political machinations begin to tarnish his family’s good name.

The situation sounds like it has the potential for farcical humor, but the authors play it deadly serious. Is she really from the fourth dimension, or is she just putting on strange airs? If her claims are true, then this would qualify as a science fiction novel. The authors never really explore the idea any further, however, so the reader never really understands the truth of her origin nor is given any reason to care about it. After the unusual claims she makes in the first chapter, Conrad and Ford pretty much just drop the idea and deliver a rather boring political thriller. Arthur is a writer by trade, and he gets a job penning weekly human interest pieces about celebrities. He becomes friends with one of his subjects, Foreign Minister Churchill (not Winston, but a fictional Edward), who becomes a target of the Dimensionalists. Much of the story focuses on the writer’s life, the business of journalism, and so forth, while spooky references are made to a Machiavellian railroad baron’s sinister plot to annex Greenland.

Try as I may, I just can’t wrap my head around Joseph Conrad. On the one hand, the guy has as great a command of the English language as anyone else in literature. On the other hand, he seems bent on using his talents to take various genres of adventure literature—nautical thrillers, tropical exploration, espionage, and in this case science fiction—and render them as boring as possible. I have no prior experience with Ford Madox Ford, who at this time had not yet found his pseudonym and was still writing under his birth name of Ford M. Hueffer. Whichever of them is to blame for this novel’s relentless obsession with the myriad stratifications of the English class system, I wish he would have stopped minutely describing people’s clothing, furniture, and eyebrow movements and just told me a satisfying story.

For readers living in today’s political climate, where politicians get away with murder, the idea that one corruption scandal is going to tear down the whole order of British government and shift power into the hands of a secret cabal seems incredibly naive. And for a far-fetched thriller, as far as plans for world domination go, this one is quite tame and tepid. For all this novel’s pompous malevolence, the gains that are won in the end feel like small victories, the inconsequential ramifications of a dull plot. Anyone approaching this book from an interest in early science fiction will be disappointed, and fans of Conrad and Ford no doubt have greater, better-known works on which to spend their reading time. The Inheritors is best left avoided.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Children of the Soil by Henryk Sienkiewicz

70 grueling chapters on love and marriage
Henryk Sienkiewicz
The novels of Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, generally fall into two categories. First there are his historical epics, for which he is best known to English-language readers. Among these include Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome, and his trilogy of Polish war novels: With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Michael. Secondly, we have his novels of modern Poland, a category that includes Children of the Soil, published in 1894. Although I consider myself a fan of Sienkiewicz, this is the worst work of his that I’ve ever read. This grueling examination of love and marriage proceeds at a sluggish pace without delivering any profound insight to justify its overly protracted length.

Warsaw businessman Stanislav Polanyetski travels to a country estate in order to collect a debt from his distant relative, Pan Plavitski. Polanyetski, commonly referred to in the text as Pan Stas, vaguely remembers playing on this farm as a child with Plavitski’s daughter Marynia. When he meets Marynia again, he finds that she has grown into an attractive woman. He immediately realizes that he is at an age where he should be thinking about taking a wife, and that Marynia would make a fine one. Through a stupid miscommunication, however, Stas and Marynia end up offending rather than courting one another. Disgruntled at his thwarted romantic dreams, Stas then makes a bonehead business transaction that puts the Plavitskis’ estate in jeopardy, a mistake which he must then spend many chapters trying to rectify. This faux pas feels like a rom-com contrivance designed to put obstacles in the way of a couple that are inevitably meant to be together. Sienkiewicz then introduces a dying child into the story as another contrivance to bring the two closer. What’s worse, upon winning Marynia’s love, Stas immediately starts flirting with other women, making him a difficult protagonist to sympathize with. After a while, even Sienkiewicz seems to grow tired of Stas and Marynia and feels the need to introduce a younger couple whose tortured romance predominates the second half of the book. A large ensemble cast of characters, many of whom feel unnecessary, are on hand to represent varied attitudes toward marriage, adultery, bachelorhood, spinsterhood, widowhood, etc.

One of the most disappointing things about this novel is its title. “Children of the Soil,” coupled with the book’s extensive length, would lead one to believe that this is an agricultural epic, like Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil, for example, or Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. There is nary a peasant in sight here, however. The characters in this book may own country homes and buy and sell fields and forests, but none of them have ever picked up a shovel in their lives. This is strictly a book about rich people’s problems. Over the course of the novel it becomes exhausting to listen to these characters complain about their fluctuating incomes when their idea of destitution is being excluded from a certain social circle.

In English translation, this novel amounts to about 675 tightly packed pages, comprising 70 mostly lengthy chapters. I’ve read very long books before, including a few by Sienkiewicz. He may have seen this as his Anna Karenina, but there is nothing in the story to merit the exorbitant length of this text. Every chapter is overly stretched out and padded with unnecessary filler, making it feel like a colossal waste of time. Those wishing to read one of Sienkiewicz’s works on modern Poland would be better off going with In Vain or Without Dogma. The latter is pretty good, while the former is rather mediocre but certainly better than Children of the Soil.

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Monday, September 16, 2019

Christopher Columbus by Johannes V. Jensen

The climactic conclusion of an epic saga
From 1908 to 1922, Danish author Johannes V. Jensen wrote a series of six novels collectively entitled The Long Journey. When these books were translated into English, they were published in three volumes. Christopher Columbus is the third and final volume in this epic work by Jensen, who would later go on to win the 1944 Nobel Prize in Literature. Through a Scandinavian-centric narrative that is part science, part mythology, and much poetic license, The Long Journey chronicles the evolution of man from prehistoric Europe to modern civilization. The first volume of The Long Journey, entitled Fire and Ice, and the second, The Cimbrians, were both excellent reads. This third volume, not surprisingly, devotes a fair amount of its length to Columbus’s voyage of discovery to the New World, but the novel also ventures farther afield, covering centuries of history in its sweeping scope.

Though The Cimbrians ended in ancient Rome, this novel briefly flashes back to the Iron Age, when a mythical hunter gives up his nomadic ways to settle down and build himself a home, one that doubles as a pagan temple. From there, Jensen relates the story of St. Christopher and depicts the building of a Gothic cathedral before diving into the narrative of Columbus and his journey to the Americas. Though Columbus was an Italian who sailed for Spain, Jensen sees him as embodying a union between Northern and Southern European peoples and their natures. (Given the amount of genetic mixing in prehistoric Europe, to claim that Columbus had some Scandinavian DNA would not be a stretch). Columbus is also depicted as the representative of two opposing faiths, a philosophical admixture of his Christian religion and the pagan tradition of empirical scientific exploration passed from Aristotle on down. Jensen presents Columbus as a mythic hero of great size and strength, but also a tragic hero with the flaws of a real mortal man.

Though The Long Journey is essentially an extended saga of white European migration, Jensen displays a surprising sensitivity toward Native Americans. When the whites reach the New World, Jensen makes it clear that the European voyagers are meeting their long-lost cousins who migrated through Asia to the Americas during the Ice Age. Jensen also devotes a few chapters to the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés. In contrasting the Aztecs with the Spanish conquistadors, he asserts that the latter triumphed because the Europeans were technologically superior to the Americans in the realm of warfare, but by no means were they intellectually, morally, or culturally superior. For a Dane, Jensen is surprisingly well-read in the history of the Americas and has done his research well. He even comes up with a novel interpretation of the Aztec myth of the god Quetzalcoatl, one that cleverly harkens back to events in previous volumes of The Long Journey. Readers looking for a historical novel about the expeditions of Columbus and Cortés will find this a satisfying read, but it does allude to some of the characters and events from the prior volumes, so The Long Journey is best appreciated as a three-volume whole. Jensen doesn’t stop with the 16th century either, but continues his exploration of humanity’s cultural evolution right up to modern times, with even Charles Darwin making an appearance along the way.

The Long Journey is really an impressive masterpiece of world literature that powerfully and imaginatively combines the mystical romanticism of a mythic saga with the brutally rational realism of natural science. Jensen’s fascinating work really deserves to be better known by English-language readers, for whom there is fortunately an excellent translation by A. G. Chater.

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

The mouse that roared
The Napoleon of Notting Hill, a satirical novel by British author G. K. Chesterton, was originally published in 1904. Because the story is set in the future (the year 1984), this book qualifies as a science fiction novel, but just barely. In the book’s introduction, Chesterton makes fun of his science fiction contemporaries and their grand visions of the future, insisting that chances are the world of the future will be pretty much the same as the world we live in now. In fact, the London of the future that Chesterton depicts in this novel has more in common with medieval times than the present-day world of 1904. Those readers interested in early works of science fiction, therefore, would best avoid this book, as it is first and foremost a political satire. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, except that this satire isn’t very funny at all.

Chesterton presumably set the novel in the future so that he could depict an alternate reality where democracy has overstayed its welcome. The apathetic citizenry of the world’s nations has happily acquiesced to the rule of despots. England no longer worships its aristocracy, so the ruler is no longer chosen by the divine right of heredity. Instead, when one king dies a new one is chosen at random from the general public. The lucky winner is Auberon Quin, an insignificant little man with a silly sense of humor. He takes his newfound regality as one big joke and institutes policies of pomp and pageantry under which minor city functionaries are given grand titles of nobility and forced to wear flashy uniforms bearing heraldic insignia. Unfortunately, Quin’s sense of humor (and Chesterton’s) leaves a lot to be desired. If you find a man putting his coat on backwards or hopping on one leg to be hilarious, then this is the novel for you. Quinn’s absurdities are more annoying than funny. Chesterton also doesn’t seem to realize that there is nothing less funny than a comedian who openly praises his own sense of humor.

King Auberon and his advisors come up with a plan to build a thoroughfare through London, but one stubborn holdout refuses to sell his land to the government. This is Adam Wayne, the Provost of Notting Hill. When the royal troops try to take his neighborhood by force, Wayne rebels against the monarchy, and Notting Hill secedes from England. From here the novel oddly transforms into a military narrative, complete with complex descriptions of troop movements. For some unexplained reason, no one uses guns in the late 20th century, as everyone fights with halberds, swords, and pole axes.

The final third of the book really wallows in its pretentious attempts at profundity, which feels very odd given the ridiculousness that precedes it. Chesterton depicts Wayne as an honest-to-God freedom fighter, but what’s the point when the tyranny in question is the ludicrous regime established in the opening chapters? Hundreds die through violent bloodshed, yet Quin thinks it’s all a joke. Meanwhile, through the character of Wayne, Chesterton seems to be saying that the loss of human life is justified as long as it results in the mythology of heroes and statues of martyrs that keeps mankind aspiring to something beyond complacency. Society needs both the fanatic and the satirist, the author claims, but this is one satirist I could have done without.

About the best thing I can say about this book is that Chesterton has a fine command of the English language. What he chooses to say with it, however, is neither entertaining or enlightening. If I ever cross paths with Chesterton again, I’ll stick with his mystery stories.
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Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A Life Force by Will Eisner

Even better than A Contract with God
Will Eisner is one of the most acclaimed and influential creators in the history of comics. His 1978 graphic novel A Contract with God is credited with popularizing the term “graphic novel” and pioneering the art form of the literary graphic novel as we know it today. In that landmark work, Eisner presented a series of stories set during the Great Depression in a predominantly Jewish tenement building on fictional Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. Though not a sequel per se, Eisner went on to revisit this setting and similar subject matter in his graphic novel A Life Force, published in 1988. A Life Force is considered the second book in a Contract with God trilogy, with the third book, entitled Dropsie Avenue, published in 1995.

Though not as well-known as A Contract with God, in many ways A Life Force surpasses its predecessor. While that first book was technically a collection of short stories, A Life Force is truly a novel, one complete work of literature that develops over the course of roughly 140 beautifully illustrated pages. It features an ensemble cast of characters whose lives are interwoven throughout. Jacob Shtarkah is a Jewish carpenter who struggles not only to find enough work to survive but also to find some meaning to his existence. Elton Shaftsbury II is a former industrial aristocrat whose fortune is destroyed by the Stock Market Crash of 1929, forcing him to move into a Bronx tenement and restart his career at the bottom rung of the social ladder. He falls in love with Rebecca, Jacob’s daughter, despite the fact that her mother forbids her to marry a gentile. The tapestry of supporting characters includes rabbis, mobsters, union organizers, immigrants, refugees, neighborhood kids, communists, the homeless, and the mentally ill, all of which add color, complexity, and historical authenticity to the narrative.

Throughout the story, Eisner intersperses newspaper clippings from the era, which help to provide historical context to the social and political landscape of the Depression. These nonfiction interludes call to mind the collage technique employed by author John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy on American society in the 1930s. In fact, A Life Force bears a strong affinity to many of the great socially conscious novels of labor and class from the early 20th century, such as the writings of Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, or Frank Norris. Rather than a contemporary account of the conditions of that era, Eisner writes from the perspective of hindsight, looking back on the world of his childhood. This novel, however, is not merely an exercise in romantic nostalgia or semiautobiographical reminiscence, as was sometimes the case with A Contract with God. In A Life Force one senses Eisner earnestly and intently striving to craft a literary epic that sheds light and insight on the Depression—his Grapes of Wrath, if you will. He goes far beyond the mere telling of individual stories to draw philosophical speculation into mankind’s universal drive for survival. What is this life force that keeps humanity struggling and slaving, like the cockroach, for some quixotic semblance of immortality?

Even the art in A Life Force is a step above the excellent work in A Contract with God. Here the page layouts are even more innovative, the characters more expressive, and the cityscapes more intricately detailed yet timelessly impressionistic. All three works in the trilogy were originally printed in a sepia-toned ink that subtly evokes both the antiquity of memory and the squalor of Dropsie Ave. Expertly written and drawn, A Life Force is a masterful work of graphic storytelling and a beautiful work of art.
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Friday, September 6, 2019

A Life in Shadow: Aimé Bonpland in Southern South America, 1817–1858 by Stephen Bell

Humboldt’s sidekick no more
Aimé Bonpland is best known for having accompanied explorer Alexander von Humboldt on his expedition to the Americas from 1799 to 1804. While many narratives of that journey relegate Bonpland to a “sidekick” role, he was a distinguished scientist in his own right. Following their monumental expedition, Humboldt never again ventured to the Americas, but Bonpland did return to South America in 1817 and lived there until his death in 1858. Bonpland was a world-renowned botanist, but he was also a physician who practiced medicine in order to finance his botanical research. During his four decades in South America, Bonpland moved around between Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil and conducted scientific expeditions in the Río de la Plata region. He spent much effort trying to establish profitable agricultural enterprises in the production of maté (a tea-like beverage), tobacco, and wool from merino sheep. Many of his endeavors were thwarted by political turmoil, and he was even imprisoned by the dictator of Paraguay for nine years. In his 2010 book, A Life in Shadow, Stephen Bell tells the story of those years in Bonpland’s life and sheds light on his unsung scientific achievements.

This book is aimed squarely at an academic audience and will likely appeal primarily to scholars of Latin American history. Bell assumes a great deal of prior knowledge on the geography and history of South America, and in particular the various revolutions and rebellions that took place during Bonpland’s tenure there. Researchers who want to know where Bonpland was on a given date and what he was doing there will find this book a treasure trove of data. It often reads, however, like a history of Bonpland’s correspondence rather than a narrative of his life. General readers approaching this book from an interest in Humboldt, hoping to find stories of geographical and scientific exploration, may be disappointed by the fact that Bell chooses to focus more on Bonpland’s political and economic activities. In the process, the scope of Bonpland’s scientific research somehow gets lost. Bell states, for example, that in 1849, “Bonpland identified plant species more rapidly than at any other part of his southern South American residence,” yet none of those species are named, and the reader remains largely clueless as to the range or importance of Bonpland’s botanical discoveries. Instead, Bell chooses to focus intently on Bonpland’s work with maté, merino sheep, tobacco, and to a lesser extent, tea.

If ever a book needed a map it’s this one. One map of vegetation zones is included, but it really could have used an overall political map of the regions, cities, and rivers that Bonpland frequented. A chronology of Bonpland’s life, or at least of his post-Humboldt career, would also have been helpful. Though the wide range of Bonpland’s polymathic interests and activities is staggering, it seems that almost every project he undertook remained unfinished. Bell explains that this was largely due to political instability in the regions in which Bonpland worked. The constant jumping back and forth between uncompleted projects makes it difficult to get any overall sense of the trajectory of Bonpland’s career or the significance of his accomplishments.

Bell set out to write the most comprehensive account of Bonpland’s life and career in South America, and in that he has no doubt succeeded, judging by the wealth of information contained in this book. A Life in Shadow will prove valuable to scholars of Latin American history, but nonacademic readers looking for an accessible overview of Bonpland’s life and work may find that Bell’s data-intensive study makes it hard to see the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The British Barbarians by Grant Allen

Lampooning English respectability
The British Barbarians, a novel by Grant Allen, was published in 1895. Allen, a science writer, novelist, and essayist, was born in Canada but lived most of his adult life in England. He was an outspoken atheist and proponent of evolution. His devotion to rational science and aversion to religion are both evident in The British Barbarians, an iconoclastic work that pokes fun at British customs of class and respectability. Regrettably, the book begins with one of the most unnecessary and pretentious introductions ever to open a novel, an exercise in self-praise in which Allen trumpets his own self-righteousness and unswerving steadfastness of purpose in the face of critical adversity and editorial censure. After having gotten off on that wrong foot, thankfully the book that follows is much better and often displays a refreshingly irreverent sense of humor.

Philip Christy, a railroad clerk and resident of Brackenhurst, Surrey, is just another common middle-class Englishman overly concerned with elevating his social position. One day he is approached by a stranger, an apparent tourist who inquires where one might find lodgings in the neighborhood. The well-dressed stranger speaks perfect English, but is apparently not from England since he has no knowledge whatsoever of English customs. Despite efforts at polite interrogation, Philip is unable to get the stranger to state from where he hails. The man will only admit to being an “alien” in England. After a couple further meetings, Philip develops a reluctant acquaintance with this apparent foreigner, whose name is revealed to be Bertram Ingledew. While Philip remains suspicious of this stranger, Ingledew forms a close friendship with Philip’s sister Frida, also known by her married name of Mrs. Robert Monteith.

As Philip and Frida educate Bertram on English manners and customs, he proves himself incredibly naive and ignorant as to the ways of society. His utter fish-out-of-water strangeness, however, allows him to view English customs objectively, and he openly and unabashedly criticizes British mores. Though a newcomer to English society, Bertram is a well-traveled man and very knowledgeable about other cultures. Viewing English customs as an anthropologist would, he constantly compares England’s restrictive social norms with the taboos of third-world cultures. Starting small with a critique of England’s confusing coinage and moving on to the unreasonable demands of fashion, Bertram eventually works his way up to hot button topics like religion, sex, and marriage, much to the shock and chagrin of his hosts and their social circle.

Allen’s humorous critiques of English social conventions are quite funny and pointedly insightful, though he does tend to dwell too long on each joke. Since the first half of the novel is so funny, it is all the more disappointing when the second half devolves into a melodramatic romance, one that comes across as strangely commonplace for the Victorian era, even though Bertram is an advocate of women’s liberation and free love. What purports to be a statement of feminine independence feels more like a lovestruck woman blindly following a cult leader.

There is a science fiction element to this novel, which makes it a pioneering work in that genre. I won’t reveal what that entails, but it is pretty obvious from chapter one. The book also includes a rather audacious freethought critique of religion, for which Allen is to be commended. The British Barbarians isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it was cutting edge for 1895. Today, it will mostly appeal to those interested in early science fiction.
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