Friday, September 24, 2021

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin



Exasperating romance in the Australian bush
Originally published in 1901, My Brilliant Career is the debut novel of Australian author Miles Franklin, who despite the male-sounding name is actually a woman. The novel is narrated in the first person by Sybilla Melvyn, a teenage girl who, like Franklin, grew up on a farm in New South Wales and dreams of being a writer. Franklin, in fact, was only a teenager when she wrote the novel and was about 21 when it was published. My Brilliant Career is one of the most popular works of Australian literature from the Victorian Era. From an American perspective, I would imagine that the novel occupies a similar position in the Australian canon as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women holds in American culture. Both books make proto-feminist assertions of feminine independence, but My Brilliant Career also contains nationalist sentiments that probably make it even more beloved to Australian readers.

The pleasant surprise of My Brilliant Career is that the title is meant to be ironic. The reader soon finds that Sybilla’s career is in fact far from brilliant. This isn’t one of those rural regionalist novels that gushes about what a wholesome joy it is to grow up on a farm in the boondocks. Sybilla makes it clear just how hard of a life a farm girl had to endure in the Australian bush, particularly when born into a poor family. She expresses a genuine loathing for her surroundings, her daily duties, and even to members of her own family. Her father is a drunkard; her mother a shrew. Dad’s ill-conceived business dealings keep the family in perpetual debt. The antipathy that Sybilla expresses towards rural life is a refreshing change from typically idyllic depictions of bucolic life in Victorian literature. Even more surprising, Sybilla is a confirmed atheist who doesn’t hesitate to foist her godless views upon the reader. Such a heretical heroine would be almost unheard of in British fiction of the era.


These promisingly unique aspects of My Brilliant Career make it all the more disappointing when, after the first few chapters, the story veers into yet another conventional Victorian romance. Every bachelor who meets Sybilla immediately wants to marry her. By her seventeenth birthday, she has already had no less than five suitors striving for her hand. Despite constant assertions of her own ugliness, Sybilla is arrogant enough to vehemently reject her admirers. Although the reader is no doubt supposed to admire her self-reliance, she really comes across as unnecessarily rude and unpleasant. The one contender who seems to win the matrimonial lotto doesn’t get off any better than his rivals. While an independent spirit is a commendable quality in a young woman, there’s nothing to admire about the way she strings this poor guy along, plays mind games with him, and at one point even physically assaults him. In the Victorian age it was a point of honor for a gentleman to put up with all manor of unreasonable behavior from the woman he loved, when really he should have just spotted the red flags, turned around, and walked the other way. The conclusion to this miserable courtship is unforgivably predictable.


The novel closes with an epilogue that shares the pessimistic and cynical tone of its initial chapters. Such wry passages are the most refreshingly charming aspect of the book, but the romance was quite off-putting. Franklin doesn’t seem to recognize that spunkiness, male or female, doesn’t have to mean conceited, uncivil, and spiteful. My Brilliant Career does, however, provide a colorful inside look at life in the Australian bush. Perhaps that’s why Aussies love the book so.

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Monday, September 20, 2021

The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela



Inside the mind of a murderer
The Family of Pascual Duarte, published in 1942, is the debut novel of Spanish author Camilo José Cela, who would go on to win the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel is written in the form of a memoir by a death row inmate. A preface explains that this prisoner left the manuscript behind at the time of his execution. Pascual Duarte, the narrator, states from the very beginning that he has been imprisoned for committing a murder, and the reader waits for the details of that crime to be revealed as Duarte relates his life story. The dark tale he tells provides a glimpse into a mind gradually descending into insanity.


Pascual lives in Southwestern Spain, near the Portuguese border. Though I have limited knowledge of Spanish geography, Cela makes it sound like this region is far from financially affluent and somewhat of a Wild West compared to the sophisticated civilization of Madrid. Little is specified about Pascual’s means of making a living, but it is clear he lives a hard life replete with alcohol and violence. His mother abuses him physically and verbally. Perhaps the only bright spot in Pascual’s family life is his friendly relationship with his sister, but she leaves the home to work as a prostitute. Pascual and his family are plagued by death, particularly the deaths of children, which brings about a sort of antagonistic relationship between Pascual and fate itself. As he endures what he perceives as divine persecution, he exhibits violent tendencies that only grow more intense as the book progresses, thus foreshadowing his drive to commit murder.

The Family of Pascual Duarte calls to mind Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, which was published the same year. Both Pascual Duarte and The Stranger’s Meursault try to make sense of a senseless universe in which they are seemingly driven by social, economic, and hereditary forces to commit crimes that marginalize them as the deviants of humanity. Duarte is driven mad by the sheer pointlessness of an indiscriminately harsh existence that yields no reward. While Camus approaches his narrative with a tone of ironically deadpan nonchalance, Cela’s view into Pascual’s mind is harsher and more disturbing. It calls to mind the brutally frank and bleak investigations into the criminal mind that one finds in Georges Simenon’s darker psychological novels like Dirty Snow and The Reckoning.

Cela has crafted a near-perfect novel. Its main fault is its ending. Rather than leading the reader all the way to the gallows, Pascual’s autobiographical narrative ends far short of his execution. Thus, many of the questions raised in the book’s introductory chapters remain unanswered, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated. Perhaps this is intentional on Cela’s part, however. In this way the reader suffers a taste of the vindictive arbitrariness of events that has plagued Pascual throughout his life of bitter disappointments.

Many years ago I read Cela’s novel The Hive. While I found much to appreciate in that book, it contains a fair amount of political content that I couldn’t fully understand without an informed knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. The Family of Pascual Duarte, on the other hand, revolves around more universal themes of life and death, love and family, crime and punishment, obsession and insanity. Despite the dark circumstances of Pascual’s life and his status as a transgressor on the fringes of society, the reader can’t help but sympathize and identify with the underlying humanity of Cela’s tragic protagonist.
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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez



Enchanting family saga with frustrating family tree
Colombian-Mexican author Gabriel García Marquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, is arguably the most celebrated figure in Latin American literature, and One Hundred Years of Solitude is widely regarded as his greatest work. Published in 1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a multi-generational saga of a Colombian family, the Buendías. After committing a crime, the clan’s visionary patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, flees into the wilderness and establishes a town, named Macondo, in a secluded swamp. Over time the town grows, as does its founding family. Yet Macondo remains largely isolated, removed from the outside world not only by distance and remoteness but also by the occurrence of extraordinary and uncanny events that defy conventional reality.

One highly commendable quality of García Marquez’s prose is that, unlike many other Latin American modernists (Carlos Fuentes for example), he doesn’t indulge in needless Faulknerian wordplay. Rather than deliberately obfuscate the plot with verbal gymnastics, García Marquez’s prose (or at least the translation by Gregory Rabassa) tells this astonishing story in, forgive the expression, plain English. That’s not to say that this is an easy text to read. The difficulty comes not from having to decode the author’s language, however, but simply from the barrage of happenings that are foisted upon the reader. While every page of this book contains fascinating scenes, the relentless bombardment of events makes it hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. When you get to the end of a chapter, you might not remember how it began.

This novel is recognized as the epitome of the genre known as “magic realism.” Fantastical events frequently occur, including conversations with the dead, flying carpets, or a torrential rain that falls incessantly for years. Among European literature, this style recalls the work of German author Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum. Both authors relate the histories of their respective homelands through a fun-house lens of humor, metaphor, and surreality. While Grass, however, gets a kick out of using bizarre imagery to shock and disgust the reader, the outlandish occurrences in One Hundred Years of Solitude inspire the reader with awe, enchantment, and at times delight. García Marquez’s Macondo is an inviting cabinet of curiosities. The only aspect that can be considered disturbing is the recurring theme of incest.

The novel includes a diagram charting the family tree of the Buendías, which is very helpful. In fact, the book would be unreadable without it. Though his prose is brisk and beguiling, García indulges in one stylistic convention that makes this novel unnecessarily difficult to read. The saga spans six generations and covers the lives of dozens of characters. Of the male family members, half are named Arcadio and the other half Aureliano. I realize García Marquez is trying to make a point—all the Arcadios share similar personality traits, as do the Arcadios—but couldn’t he have at least picked two names that begin with different letters? Imagine a book full of Bills and Bobs. I found myself consulting the family tree on almost every page, and still often didn’t know which brother, father, or son I was reading about. After a while I stopped caring and just let the intriguing events wash over me regardless. While I enjoyed and admired this novel, I would have appreciated it twice as much without this frustrating name game.

García Marquez is a giant of Latin American literature, and if this book is any indication, deservedly so. Still, this novel is a more difficult read than it has any good reason to be. I look forward to enjoying some other book of his where I don’t have to sort out all the Arcadios and Aurelianos.
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Monday, September 13, 2021

Tales from Jókai by Mór Jókai



Lukewarm Hungarian goulash
Mór Jókai
Mór Jókai (also known as Maurus Jókai) is the Hungarian equivalent of Victor Hugo or Leo Tolstoy. That is to say, he is widely considered his nation’s greatest man of letters, at least prior to the 20th century. Tales from Jókai is a collection of short fiction in English translation by this distinguished Hungarian author. This volume was published in 1904, the year of Jókai’s death. According to the book’s introduction, Jókai published over 300 volumes worth of writings, including over 200 novels. With any artist so prolific, there’s bound to be some masterpieces and some failures among his works. Tales from Jókai is evidence of this, as the seven short stories and two novellas included are an assortment of the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

To open the volume, the editor, British linguist R. Nisbet Bain, provides a pretty extensive biographical essay on Jókai, but the reader practically needs a master’s degree in Hungarian history to understand all of it. Hungary is a nation that has spent much of its history occupied by conquerors, whether the Ottoman Turks of centuries past or the Austrians of Jókai’s lifetime. Life under tyranny is depicted in many of the stories, sometimes even to satirical effect. If any common thread could be said to unite the selections, Jókai seems to have a fascination with concocting creative means of torture and execution, a recurring theme in several of the stories.


Readers hoping that a volume of Hungarian fiction might shed some light on the history and culture of the nation in question may be disappointed to find that few of the selections are actually set in Hungary. Instead, the stories take place in locations as diverse as Ottoman Turkey, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ancient Carthage, and the mythical land of Atlantis. Much like Poland’s Henryk Sienkiewicz, Jókai was a romanticist with a taste for fairy tale and fable. The function of these tales is not to serve as realistic historical fiction, but nevertheless some nuggets of European history can be gleaned from the romantic plots. The selections cover a diverse range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror, comedy, and military adventure.


Many of the short stories fail to impress, but luckily the lengthier novellas are more successful in captivating the reader’s interest. In “The Red Starosta,” the book’s best selection, the son of a nobleman and the son of a minister go off to study at a university together. After graduation, the minister’s son is amazed to find how much lowlier is his lot in life is than that of his aristocratic friend. In this entertaining and surprising story, Jókai makes fun of class distinctions, but he ultimately relents in his irreverence to conclude with a socially acceptable ending. The second novella, “City of the Beast,” is an unexpected journey into the realm of science fiction. On a Mediterranean voyage, a merchant from Tyre and his Carthaginian wife are blown off course and land at a pre-sunken Atlantis. Much of the novella is a utopian and/or dystopian description of Atlantean society. With a devout Jew as protagonist, however, Jókai ultimately turns the story into a fable of faith that contrasts the Sodom of Atlantis with the righteousness of Jehovah.


Since this is the first book by Jókai that I’ve read, it’s hard to say how indicative this grab-bag of stories is of his writing as a whole. While the two novellas were pretty strong showings, the collection as a whole is rather mediocre and didn’t really live up to the author’s reputation. If anything, this volume demonstrates that Jókai is more successful in long-form fiction, which would lead me to recommend one skip his short stories and hunt for a masterpiece among his novels.


Stories in this collection
The Celestial Slingers
The Compulsory Diversion
The Sheriff of Caschau
The Justice of Soliman
Love and the Little Dog
The Red Starosta
The City of the Beast
The Hostile Skulls
The Bad Old Times

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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Gold of Their Bodies: A Novel about Gauguin by Charles Gorham



Naturalistic portrait of the uncompromising artist
Published in 1955, The Gold of Their Bodies is a biographical novel on the life of French painter Paul Gauguin. It was written by Charles Gorham (1911-1975), an author I know almost nothing about. According to the Library of Congress, Gorham authored ten books, including biographical novels on French author Honoré de Balzac (Wine of Life, 1958) and the Emperor of Ethiopia Hailie Selassie I (Lion of Judah, 1966). The Gold of Their Bodies includes a colophon that indicates the novel was written in New York—apparently Gorham’s home—as well as Paris, Pont Aven, and Arles, three locations in France that figured prominently in Gauguin’s life.


Only about half of the novel takes place in France, however. Gauguin possessed an adventurous soul that could not be confined by his native land, a quality that makes his life tasty fruit for a novelistic treatment. Gauguin’s travels took him all over the world—Denmark, Panama, Martinique, Tahiti, the Marquesas—for a life that was epic in scope, and he bore a larger-than-life personality that lived up to his exotic itinerary. Gauguin was an uncompromising individual who lived life on his own terms, scorning societal conventions at every turn and sticking to an unwavering belief in the superiority of his own art, even when no one else seemed to agree with him.

Gorham may not have traveled to Tahiti or the Marquesas, but he has certainly done enough research to bring the artist’s tropical experiences to life. Other than his period of “going native” in the islands, where most of his best-known paintings were produced, the other well-known episode of Gauguin’s life is his stint as Vincent Van Gogh’s roommate and mentor in Provence. Gorham sensitively portrays the interaction between the two painters without over-glorifying Van Gogh’s genius or insanity. Unlike Van Gogh, Gauguin enjoyed some level of artistic recognition and respect during his lifetime, but it never equated to enough financial success to keep him very far from starvation. Gorham vividly sketches a naturalistic depiction of Gauguin’s often squalid mode of existence while providing thoughtful insight into his art.

Every biographical novel exhibits a certain amount of hero worship towards its subject, but Gorham’s narrative is not an entirely favorable portrait. While admirable as an artist, Gauguin was far from a model human being. He was a terrible husband, a dead-beat dad, a philanderer, an alcoholic, a megalomaniac, and his love affairs in Tahiti qualified him as a pedophile by European standards. To his credit, Gauguin seems to have been less of a racist than many of his colonial contemporaries and even a proponent of Indigenous rights in the South Pacific, though today he would be condemned for cultural appropriation. While Gorham clearly admires his protagonist, he does not let Gauguin off the hook for his shortcomings, character defects, and crimes. Gorham’s aim is not to make the reader like Gauguin, but rather to understand him. This novel’s balanced depiction of Gauguin allows the reader to admire his artistic genius without condoning his reprehensible qualities.


Gorham succeeds in translating the legendary Gauguin into a fully dimensional human character with whom the reader can relate and sympathize or even choose to dislike. As an indication of its success as a biographical novel, this book makes me want to delve deeper into Gauguin’s art and conduct further research into the true history behind this compelling interpretation of his life.

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Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence by Derek Barker



Encyclopedic guide to the troubadour’s repertoire
Bob Dylan has written at least 600 songs, but he has still found the time to perform hundreds of songs written by other artists, whether live in concert on his Never Ending Tour or recorded amongst his numerous albums. Dylan fans know that Bob is not only America’s greatest songwriter but also rock and roll’s premier tour guide through American musical history. Dylan has resurrected scores of classic songs from the folk, blues, country, bluegrass, gospel, and rockabilly genres and reintroduced them to a whole new generation of listeners. Derek Barker, editor of the magazine devoted to Dylan entitled ISIS, makes these often surprising and obscure selections the subject of his book The Songs He Didn’t Write: Bob Dylan Under the Influence.


The bulk of Barker’s book is formatted as an encyclopedia with the song entries listed in alphabetical order. While Dylan has devoted entire albums to cover songs, like Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, the majority of The Songs He Didn’t Write were performed in concert and are only available on bootleg recordings. (Dylan’s official Bootleg Series, however, has made many formerly hard-to-find recordings accessible to the masses.) Each song’s encyclopedia entry discusses who wrote it, when and where Dylan played or recorded it, other artists’ renditions of it, and how Dylan may have learned it.

Folk songs often have interesting back stories, sometimes going back centuries, and Barker delves into the historical details of such classics. In addition, Barker treats the reader to mini-biographies of many important musical figures who influenced or impressed Dylan, such as Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Jimmie Rodgers, Elizabeth Cotten, the Carter Family, David Bromberg, and Warren Zevon, just to name a few. One also gets quite an education on the modern history of folk music, like how musicologists such as Alan Lomax and the poet Carl Sandburg sought out, recorded, and compiled the music and lyrics of traditional songs that became standards in the Greenwich Village coffee houses of Dylan’s formative years. At first glance this book seems like it would only appeal to the most diehard Dylanologists, but it is quite surprising how much interesting information it delivers on the history of American popular music in general.

In addition to the encyclopedic entries, Barker provides three appendices. The first is a list of Dylan recording sessions with details about each session. This is not a complete list but rather one focused on cover songs. The second appendix is a list of bootleg recordings that circulate among collectors. The third appendix provides more information on some relevant topics, such as Lomax’s archive of field recordings or the Theme Time Radio Hour program in which Dylan as disc jockey served up many of the songs that influenced him.

The Songs He Didn’t Write was published in 2008, between Dylan’s studio albums Modern Times and Together Through Life. The cover songs on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs (2008) are also included. This was several years before Dylan’s three-album Frank Sinatra phase and his Christmas album, all of which have added many more cover songs to his repertoire. In the intervening years, he’s also performed quite a few covers not included here. Luckily, Barker recently published a 160-page “Supplement” to this excellent reference work, which covers Dylan’s career up to 2020. I look forward to reading it.
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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Journey of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536 by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca



Harrowing trek across the American continent
In 1527, Spain sent a party of 600 soldiers and colonists to America to explore Florida and the Gulf Coast. The voyage was led by Pánfilo de Narváez and thus dubbed the Narváez Expedition. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was named treasurer and second in command of the expedition. After stopping at established Spanish settlements in Hispaniola and Cuba, the party’s ships entered Tampa Bay in April 1528, where a group disembarked and began exploring the Florida coast on foot and horse. Through a series of unfortunate events and poor decisions, the landing party became separated from their ships, never to see them again. If they ever hoped to return to civilization, their only recourse was to head West towards Mexico in hopes of reaching existing Spanish settlements. Very few members of the Narváez expedition survived this arduous journey, but Cabeza de Vaca was one who did, making it all the way to the California coast and down to Mexico City. Afterwards, he wrote a narrative account of his journey from memory. This work was originally published in Spain in 1542 as La relación de Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The English translation by Fanny Bandelier was published in 1904.

Cabeza de Vaca’s account is a harrowing story of death and deprivation in which scores of Spaniards succumbed to starvation, drowning, disease, and cannibalism. The way he tells it, one would think there was nothing to eat in America in the early 16th century. Even the Indigenous populations he encounters are mostly struggling for existence. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions encountered numerous Native peoples, some hostile and some friendly. The hostile tribes killed his countrymen or enslaved them for years, while the friendly Indians sometimes nearly worshipped the Spaniards as faith healers and messengers sent by the gods. Cabeza de Vaca’s encounters with Native tribes are the most interesting and valuable aspect of his narrative. Though not without his Christian prejudices, Cabeza de Vaca shows a curiosity, sensitivity, and tolerance toward Native American cultures that was a marked departure from the prevailing genocidal attitude of the conquistadors and early missionaries toward the Indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. As the prototypical anthropologist of the New World, Cabeza de Vaca left behind an invaluable document of the state of Native civilizations at this early period in colonial history.

All his merits as an explorer and observer, however, do not make Cabeza de Vaca a great writer. As read through Bandelier’s translation, this is often a convoluted and confusing text. It must always be kept in mind that Cabeza de Vaca wrote this account from memory, years after the events depicted, which calls its accuracy and reliability into question. Also, most of the places he explored were unnamed at the time, making it difficult to tell exactly where many of the events he relates took place. The names he gives for the Native tribes may be questionable as well. Probably the best way to read this work would be in a recent, heavily annotated edition, where one might get the benefit of professional anthropologists’ and geographers’ insights, as opposed to the public domain text by Bandelier, which provides very little historical context.

Nevertheless, Cabeza de Vaca’s journey makes for a fascinating read, both as a historical document and as an exploration adventure story. This is a must-read primary source for anyone interested in Native American history or Spain’s colonization of the New World.
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