Thursday, October 14, 2021

Boston by Upton Sinclair

An odd choice of perspective through which to view these events
American socialist author Upton Sinclair made a career out of writing books about social injustice and the class struggle, so it is no surprise that he would write a novel about one of the most important historical events affecting the working class in America: the trials and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian immigrant laborers in Boston who were accused of armed robbery and murder. Despite a prejudicial trial and evidence asserting their innocence, after seven years of legal battles the two were sent to the electric chair. In his 1928 novel entitled Boston, Sinclair contends that Sacco and Vanzetti were not executed for their crimes but rather for their ethnicity, class, and openly anarchist beliefs.

This is definitely a compelling subject, but Sinclair sure chooses an odd way to approach it. The protagonist of the novel is Cornelia Thornwell, the sexagenarian widow of a former Massachusetts governor. Fed up with her bickering adult children, Cornelia runs away from her wealthy family to live independently as a factory laborer. Having denounced her riches, she is forced to lodge in a low-rent boarding house in an Italian immigrant neighborhood, where she befriends one of her fellow lodgers, Vanzetti. Because of this focus on Cornelia and her family, much of the book ends up being about rich people’s problems rather than the injustices suffered by working class immigrants. In his eagerness to proclaim the men’s innocence, Sinclair makes Vanzetti cartoonishly saintly and virginal, almost to the point of simple-mindedness. Sacco, on the other hand, is barely a character because he doesn’t have the good fortune to be Cornelia’s neighbor.

As a historical novel, Boston feels like a warm-up to Sinclair’s later series of Lanny Budd novels. Like Boston, the Budd novels star a wealthy outsider who sees the light and embraces leftist socioeconomic theory. Both Lanny Budd and Cornelia Thornwell witness real-life world-changing events and interact with famous historical personages. This narrative strategy works far better in the Budd novels than it does in Boston, however. Lanny and his family are actually likable characters with whom the reader can identify, while the Thornwell family are annoying and pretentious and feel like a waste of time.

Even though at least half the novel is taken up by the Thornwell family, the book is so overly long that Sinclair still manages to delve deeply into the legal proceedings. Sinclair thinks the case against Sacco & Vanzetti was ridiculous, and rightfully so. Evidence of their guilt was manufactured by the prosecution, while evidence of their innocence was withheld or disregarded. In expressing his bemused disbelief, Sinclair relates the events of the crime, trial, and punishment with a sarcastically comedic tone that is totally inappropriate for a book about two men who were executed for crimes they didn’t commit.

What Sinclair does well in Boston, but only in a few passages, is give the reader an idea of just how notorious and divisive the Sacco and Vanzetti case was. The framing and execution of these two Italian immigrants was America’s very own Dreyfus Affair, but without the happy ending. Sinclair portrays Sacco and Vanzetti as martyrs willing to die for a call to arms. Workers all over the world were enraged by their wrongful convictions and engaged in demonstrations, some violent, in major cities around the globe. The sad part, however, is that the story behind these two recognizable names is largely forgotten today, while the injustices they endured continue. Unfortunately, Sinclair’s bloated, meandering, and sardonic novel is unlikely to get anyone excited about that.
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Friday, October 8, 2021

A Traveler from Altruria by William Dean Howells

A Utopian visits America
William Dean Howells
A Traveler from Altruria, a novel by William Dean Howells, was first serialized in the pages of the literary magazine The Cosmopolitan before being published in book form in 1894. Howells, who was nicknamed “The Dean of American Letters,” was America’s most highly regarded realist novelist in the late 19th century. A Traveler from Altruria is considered a utopian novel, but it inverts the usual narrative formula of that genre. Instead of following a protagonist who travels to a utopian society, here the Utopian comes to visit America, where he expresses amazement and disbelief at our archaic way of life.

The narrator of the story is Mr. Twelvemough, a popular author who writes trashier novels than those of Howells. Twelvemough lives in an unnamed city on the Eastern Seaboard (likely Boston), but at the time of the novel he is vacationing in the country, amid the mountains and farms of New Hampshire. A friend of Twelvemough’s convinces him to act as host to a foreign visitor, Mr. Homos, who hails from the exotic land of Alturia. Altruria is a southern continent, roughly the size of Australia, that has somehow managed to remain undiscovered by the rest of the world until only a few years ago. The name Altruria is derived from “altruism,” which sums up the Altrurian worldview. Their civilization has developed to a state where the inhabitants no longer work for personal gain but for the good of all.

Immediately after their meeting, Homos becomes a source of embarrassment to Twelvemough when he insists on helping porters carry baggage and waitresses serve meals. Twelvemough can’t make his guest understand that a gentleman doesn’t demean himself with manual labor. America tends to think of itself as an egalitarian nation when compared to Britain and other European nations. Compared to Altruria, however, which recognizes no class distinctions whatsoever, America seems positively feudalistic. In Altruria, there are no rich or poor. The economy is socialistic and communal. Everyone does a few hours of manual labor each day. Altruria has no money, for none is needed. Everyone is provided with what they need, and no one takes more than they need. It is therefore very difficult for Homos to understand the way American society revolves around money and competition, resulting in vast income disparity and class inequality.

Howells, a Christian socialist, makes some good points in this book, but the way he makes them leaves something to be desired. The novel is essentially a series of lengthy conversations that frequently grow tedious as they follow an established formula: An American makes a statement related to money or class. Homos becomes visibly disturbed. Twelvemough asks him what’s wrong. Homos expresses disbelief at our barbaric customs. Twelvemough expresses annoyance at his disbelief. And repeat. Howells has to go through all these steps every time he wants to make a point. For variety, he shakes up the participants by putting Homos in a room full of high-society capitalists or struggling farmers. There is an element of humor to Homos’s fish-out-of-water experiences, but sometimes it’s hard to tell who Howells is making fun of, the Americans or the Altrurian. The upper-class Americans make such absurd statements that it’s hard to take them seriously, and Altruria is such an unrealistic utopia it sometimes borders on the ridiculous. There is some stimulating food for thought here, but it would have been more exciting if Howells had taken the reader to Altruria instead of merely acquainting us with that mysterious nation’s stuffy representative.

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Thursday, October 7, 2021

Old Books by (Mostly) Dead Nobel Laureates 2021

Congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah!

It was announced early this morning that novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. Gurnah, the author of Paradise (1994) and Desertion (2005) was born in Zanzibar (an autonomous region of Tanzania) and emigrated to England at the age of 18. As is often the case with the current Nobel winners, I had never heard of him, but that won’t stop us from celebrating the institution of the Nobel Prize as we do every October.

Each year Old Books by Dead Guys presents the ever-growing cumulative list of works by Nobel laureates that have been reviewed at this blog. (You can also find this list by clicking on “Nobel Laureates” in the above menu bar.) Writers making their first appearance on this list in the past year include French-Algerian author Albert Camus (1957 Nobel), Colombian-Mexican author Gabriel García Marquez (1982 Nobel), Nigerian author Wole Soyinka (1986 Nobel), Spanish author Camilo José Cela (1989 Nobel), and German author Günter Grass (1999 Nobel). Plus, I’ve added new books by France’s Romain Rolland, the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Sholokhov, and more. Check out the authors below and click on the titles to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom (born in India) 🇬🇧

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium 🇧🇪

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel) India 🇮🇳

Romain Rolland (1915 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Verner von Heidenstam (1916 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

Henrik Pontoppidan (1917 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Carl Spitteler (1919 Nobel) Switzerland 🇨🇭

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

George Benard Shaw (1925 Nobel) Ireland 🇮🇪

Henri Bergson (1927 Nobel) France 🇫🇷

Sigrid Undset (1928 Nobel) Norway 🇳🇴
  • Jenny (1911) - 2.5 stars

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

John Galsworthy (1932 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Ivan Bunin (1933 Nobel) France (born in Russia) 🇫🇷 🇷🇺

Eugene O’Neill (1936 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Pearl S. Buck (1938 Nobel) United States of America (raised in China) 🇺🇸

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1939 Nobel) Finland 🇫🇮

Johannes Vilhelm Jensen (1944 Nobel) Denmark 🇩🇰

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany) 🇨🇭 🇩🇪

Bertrand Russell (1950 Nobel) United Kingdom 🇬🇧

Pär Lagerkvist (1951 Nobel) Sweden 🇸🇪

François Mauriac (1952 Nobel) 
France 🇫🇷

Ernest Hemingway (1954 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Halldór Laxness (1955 Nobel) Iceland 🇮🇸

Albert Camus (1957 Nobel) France (born in Algeria) 🇫🇷

Borris Pasternak
 (1958 Nobel) Russia (Soviet Union) 🇷🇺

John Steinbeck (1962 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Mikhail Sholokhov (1965 Nobel) Soviet Union 🇷🇺

Gabriel García Marquez (1982 Nobel) Colombia 🇨🇴

Wole Soyinka (1986 Nobel) Nigeria 🇳🇬

Camilo José Cela (1989 Nobel) Spain 🇪🇸

José Saramago (1998 Nobel) 
Portugal 🇵🇹

Günter Grass (1999 Nobel) Germany 🇩🇪

Orhan Pamuk (2006 Nobel) 
Turkey 🇹🇷
  • Snow (2002) - 3.5 stars

Mo Yan (2012 Nobel) China 🇨🇳

Bob Dylan (2016 Nobel) United States of America 🇺🇸

Olga Tokarczuk (2018 Nobel) Poland 🇵🇱

Bonus: Albert Einstein (1921 Nobel in Physics) Germany/Switzerland 🇩🇪 🇨🇭

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Interpreters by Wole Soyinka

Needlessly confusing and obscure
Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature, is best known as a playwright, poet, and essayist, but he has also published three novels to date. The first of these, The Interpreters, was published in 1965. The novel centers around a handful of characters who had gone abroad to study in England or America, but have now returned to lives and careers in Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos. None of them are literally professional interpreters, but presumably Soyinka sees them as interpreters of Western culture in modern Nigeria, or of Nigerian culture to Western visitors, hence the title. Sagoe is a journalist, Egbo is a government bureaucrat, Bandele is a professor, Sekoni is an engineer, and Kola is an artist. There is also a woman among the group named Dehinwa, but little is revealed about her other than she is girlfriend to one of the gang. On the surface, one can facetiously look at The Interpreters as a sort of Nigerian St. Elmo’s Fire, especially since the characters spend large portions of the book hanging around drinking together and pursuing love affairs.

The plot ventures off into other directions, however, and in fact, too many directions all at once. The narrative is a collage of disconnected scenes not necessarily arranged in chronological order, each one of which seems to open in mid-conversation, with the reader being expected to know what’s going on. All sorts of plot lines are introduced, with few of them followed up. Just when you think you’ve found something interesting to grab onto, it’s off on another tangent. In addition to the core coterie of friends, Soyinka is constantly introducing new characters, far too many to care about. The cast includes a few white visitors from America and England who get far more attention than they deserve, thus distracting the reader from any notable growth or change among the key Nigerian players. In a newly independent Nigeria, these young members of their nation’s intelligentsia must come to terms with their traditional Nigerian heritage while navigating their homeland’s transition to modernity. This is illustrated through minor culture clashes between Black and White, old and young, rich and poor, European and African.

The language employed is equally as confusing as the kaleidoscopic plot. The prose often resembles beat poetry more than narrative text—a barrage of adjectives hunting for a verb. I was ready to blame the translator for this illegibility until I found out that Soyinka himself wrote the novel in English. The Nigerian author clearly has a mastery of the English dictionary and thesaurus; he just chooses to use his words in a way that deliberately obscures the straightforward relation of any plot events, dialogue, or meaning. Soyinka does employ some native African terms, for which a glossary is provided, but they are not very obtrusive within the prose. More difficult to get accustomed to is the pantheon of gods that are constantly referred to metaphorically, plus the fact that one of the characters seems to have invented his own religion, the details of which are, like so much of the book, only hinted at.

The overall impression left by The Interpreters is that of an author trying just too hard to be unconventional. The book is really bogged down in the self-indulgent modernist conceit that the author’s originality, cleverness, and artistry are more important than the story being told. As a result, if there was a point to all of this, it was lost on me, though I imagine Nigerian readers would have an easier time making sense of it.
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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Modern Book Illustrators and Their Work, edited by C. Geoffrey Holme and Ernest G. Halton

British book illustrations of the Art Nouveau period
Published in 1914, Modern Book Illustrators and Their Work is an art book reproducing about 170 book illustrations by 50 artists. Some of those artists are only represented by one image while others may account for as many as eight or nine. The artworks are presented in alphabetical order by the name of the artist. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the illustrations are reproduced in black-and-white. While there may be a few genuine etchings or wood engravings among the selections, almost all appear to be pen-and-ink drawings. Seven painted illustrations are reproduced in full color. Scanned copies of this book can be downloaded for free from HathiTrust and the Internet Archive.

According to the book’s introduction, the majority of the selected illustrations were created after 1890. Salaman describes “the ‘90s” as a sort of golden age of book illustration in which artists made marked advancements over the previous decades. “Modern” is a relative term, of course. These illustrations were made slightly before the career of Rockwell Kent, who would be considered America’s quintessential modern book illustrator. To today’s viewers, these drawings will seem decidedly pre-modern. Most of them are drawn in an Art Nouveau style or mimic the style of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, similar to the kind of illustrations produced by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. For illustrators or printmakers looking to emulate those styles, this would be a good sourcebook of images from which to draw ideas and techniques. A minority of the artworks exhibit a realist style that might have been influenced by French painters like Jean François Millet and Gustave Courbet.

The subject matter of the art falls into two main categories. The first would be fanciful depictions of fairy tales, folk tales, mythological subject matter, or literal “faerie stories” (i.e. populated by fairies). The second category is Dickensianesque images of England, either drawn in a comical style like the caricatures of Daumier or in a more realist style when depicting landscapes, cityscapes, or members of the working class.

Just about every illustration in the book demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship and intricate detail. Contemporary draughtsmen can learn much from their composition, design, and ornament. Though the style depicted is not as forcefully eye-catching as later black-and-white masters like Kent, Lynd Ward, or Barry Moser, this volume is a delightful time capsule of this whimsical and picturesque era in book illustration. Lovers of old books will enjoy browsing through these images and imagining the stories they might have accompanied.

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Illustrations from the book:

Dion Clayton Calthrop, The Homes of the Four Winds, from The Guide to Fairyland

Sydney R. Jones, Nijmegen, Gelderland, from Old Houses in Holland

Donald Maxwell, The Weavers, Canterbury, from Adventures with a Sketch Book

R. James Williams, The Three Little Crones, Each with Something

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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