Friday, October 31, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: French III by Honoré de Balzac, et al.

The French Collection 3
Alfred de Vigny
In 1898 the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons published a ten-volume series entitled Stories by Foreign Authors, featuring short fiction by European authors in English translation. The first three books in the series were devoted to the literature of France. This is the third of these volumes, subtitled French III.

The book opens with its best-known selection, “The Hidden Masterpiece” by Honoré de Balzac. This classic tale of art and obsession gives the fictional account of real-life painter Nicholas Poussin’s meeting with Maitre Frenhofer, a master’s master equipped with almost supernatural artistic skills. Poussin, the upstart whose ambition knows no bounds, would give up everything to decipher this old man’s secrets. This is one of Balzac’s best shorter works. Art lovers in particular will be impressed and enthralled by the author’s breadth of knowledge on the art of painting.

In the next piece, Pierre Loti’s “The Sorrow of an Old Convict,” a boat captain strikes up a friendship with one of his passengers, an aged criminal bound for exile in New Caledonia. It’s a touching tale but a little too brief to be profoundly moving. Loti’s literary talent is evident, but the reader is left wanting a little more.

The weakest piece in the book is “The Mummy’s Foot” by Théophile Gautier, a mediocre horror tale. The story’s narrator goes to an antiquities shop to buy a paperweight and ends up purchasing the mummified foot of an Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter. From there the story moves in predictable directions, and even the surprise ending seems familiar and trite.

Next up, Edouard Rod contributes a very strong entry with “Father and Son.” When a businessman is informed that his father is dying, he must drop everything and return to his hometown. The journey home inspires nostalgic thoughts of youth and inspires him to contemplate the importance of family. Anyone who’s ever undergone such a life event can identify with Rod’s touching treatment of this universal human experience.

Despite the strength of Balzac and Rod’s entries, the best selection in the book is its closing piece, “Laurette or the Red Seal” by Alfred de Vigny. In 1815, a soldier in the guard of Louis XVIII is suffering a rainy journey on horseback to Lille when he makes the acquaintance of an aged infantryman traveling the same muddy thoroughfare. This old soldier used to be a sailor, and he shares a story from his navy days about a voyage he once made to the penal colony in Guiana. This is a riveting story that reveals its secrets slowly. Once de Vigny skillfully draws you into the lives of the characters, you can’t wait to find out what happens next.

If you like classic French literature, do yourself a favor and read the three French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series. You’ll find familiar names like Balzac, Zola, and de Maupassant, but the series’ true value lies in the discovery of lesser-known authors you may not have encountered before. In this case, Rod and de Vigny certainly stand out as authors worthy of a second look.

For some reason, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg offers ebook files of the French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but they can be found for free at Wikisource.

Stories in this collection
The Hidden Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac 
The Sorrow of an Old Convict by Pierre Loti 
The Mummy’s Foot by Théophile Gautier 
Father and Son by Edouard Rod 
Laurette or the Red Seal by Alfred de Vigny 

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: French II by François Coppée, et al.

Belles Lettres
François Coppée
This collection of French short fiction is the second book in a ten-volume series published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898, entitled Stories by Foreign Authors. Three of the volumes in the series are devoted to the writers of France; this, being the second, is subtitled French II. Volume number two is even better than its predecessor, and may just be the best book in the entire series.

The tent-pole piece in this collection of five stories is Emile Zola’s “The Attack on the Mill.” Originally published in the 1880 French collection Les Soirées de Médan, this story was intended by Zola to be a sort of manifesto for his new literary school of Naturalism. During the Franco-Prussian War, the peaceful lives of a miller, his daughter, and her fiancé are violently interrupted when their picturesque mill in rural Lorraine suddenly becomes a battleground. The version of the story included here is its original incarnation, a decidedly bleak and unromantic picture of war, and thankfully not the later variation which was altered with a happily-ever-after ending.

I’m not familiar with the author François Coppée and have no idea if he had any association with Zola, but his story “The Substitute” reads like it could very well have been written by the father of Naturalism himself. After a life spent in and out of reform schools and prisons, committing petty crimes and paying for them, Jean François Letruc decides to turn his life around. This excellent story is even better than Zola’s entry, and would be perfect were it not for an ill-chosen title which gives too much of the story away.

And now for something completely different. “The Venus of Ille” by Prosper Mérimée is a horror story. An archaeologist on a sketching trip through the region of Roussillon, in southern France, pays a visit to a local resident who recently unearthed an ancient statue of a woman. The most puzzling aspect of this bronze goddess is that she is depicted not only with remarkable beauty but also with a mysterious vengeful quality. This piece is not as dark and chilling as the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, but bears more resemblance to some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of the uncanny. The story unfolds slowly, taking its sweet time, but it’s well worth the wait.

In addition to these three great selections, the collection is rounded out by two other solid entries. In “The Sempstress’ Story” by Gustave Droz, the title character recalls how a renowned physician saved the life of her sick child. There’s nothing special or surprising about this one; it’s just a well-told tale. “The Virgin’s God-Child” by Emile Souvestre is set in Douarnanez, a seaside town in Brittany. It resembles the works of Sir Walter Scott, as the author delves into Breton folklore and culture in a manner quite similar to Scott’s treatment of the Scottish highlands. Ultimately the atmosphere becomes more important than the story. Though I’ve had the good fortune to visit Douarnenez and enjoyed Souvestre’s vivid depiction of Brittany, this was my least favorite entry in the book.

Any lover of classic literature, particularly those with an interest in France and its history, will find this collection well worth their time. For those familiar with Zola and other A-list French authors, this book provides a good introduction to four lesser-known French writers who are definitely worthy of attention.

For some reason, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg offers ebook files of the French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but they can be found for free at Wikisource.

Stories in this collection
The Substitute by François Coppée 
The Attack on the Mill by Emile Zola 
The Virgin’s God-Child by Emile Souvestre 
The Sempstress’ Story by Gustave Droz 
The Venus of Ille by Prosper Mérimée 

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: French I by Alphonse Daudet, et al.

Vive la France!
Guy de Maupassant
In the 19th century, the greatest literature in the world was being produced in France. English-language readers may have been more familiar with British writers, but in terms of stylistic innovation and storytelling skill the French were really in a league of their own. When Charles Scribner’s Sons published their ten-volume series Stories by Foreign Authors in 1898, they devoted three whole volumes to French fiction. This book, subtitled French I, is the first volume of the series.

Of the six stories included here, only one of them misses its mark. “Uncle and Nephew” by Edmond About is about a man in danger of losing his sanity because he can’t summon the courage to propose to the woman he loves. It starts out as a mildly fun romantic comedy and eventually devolves into a confusing and silly farce. Thankfully, the other five stories are much better.

Alphonse Daudet’s “The Siege of Berlin,” takes place during the Franco-Prussian War. If you know anything about that war, you know that there was no siege of Berlin, but all is explained in this touching story of patriotism. “The Juggler of Notre Dame” by Nobel Prize-winner Anatole France, is a funny, satirical tale of a street performer who finds religion. In Paul Bourget’s “Another Gambler,” Claude mourns the loss of his black-sheep cousin Lucien, and fears he may have inadvertently been the cause of the dead man’s downward spiral. It’s a very moving and compassionate study of childhood regrets. These three selections are all strong, but it’s the two excellent stories that finish off the book that really make this collection worth reading.

“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant is a masterpiece. Madame Loisel is a beautiful and charming woman, but born poor and married poor. She bemoans her station in life, longing for the excitement and luxury of the wealthy class. When her husband, a clerk, is invited to a ball, she seizes the opportunity for one night of lush life, but how much will this one enchanted evening cost the couple in the end? It’s a seemingly simple story that delivers a moral message, but it’s profoundly deep and insightful in its examination of wealth, class, and ambition.

Another great story, Victorien Sardou’s “The Black Pearl,” is set in Amsterdam, for no apparent reason. To prove his enduring love to the woman he wishes to marry, Balthazar must find a preserved flower that he saved from their meeting years before. When he returns home to retrieve the beloved talisman, however, he finds that his desk has been ransacked and his valuables stolen. With the help of his scientifically minded friend Cornelius, and a zealous detective named M. Tricamp, Balthazar searches for the solution to this puzzling case. It’s a great mystery, worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The startling conclusion is truly a surprise, though to some extent it does defy belief. Some confusing passages and overly melodramatic moments keep this story from being perfect, but it’s still a great read. Too bad Sardou didn’t write a whole series of detective novels with these characters; I would certainly read them.

This is one of the best volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series and a great collection for fans of classic French literature. These authors may not be as famous as Hugo, Zola, Balzac, or Dumas, but after reading the pieces included here you’ll certainly want to seek out more of their work.

For some reason, neither Amazon nor Project Gutenberg offers ebook files of the French volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, but they can be found for free at Wikisource.

Stories in this collection
The Siege of Berlin by Alphonse Daudet 
The Juggler of Notre Dame by Anatole France 
Uncle and Nephew by Edmond About 
Another Gambler by Paul Bourget 
The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant 
The Black Pearl by Victorien Sardou

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Long-winded but breathtaking
Jules Verne’s science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was originally published in 1870. Now, almost a century and a half later, it sits firmly ensconced amid a pantheon of classic adventure novels, including Treasure Island, Moby-Dick, and Robinson Crusoe, that everyone thinks they know and few take the time to read. We’re familiar with the children’s versions we read as kids, and we’ve seen the latest film adaptations. For many of the books in said pantheon, that’s enough. But Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one case where it really pays to return to the original source. This visionary work was years ahead of its time in its scientific speculations, and it’s still capable of delivering plenty of thrills to a 21st-century audience.

In 1866, the world is captivated and terrified by a mysterious sea monster that has been sighted in various locations all over the globe. This creature, possibly a giant narwhal whale, is reputed to be responsible for the sinking of several ships. An expedition is organized to hunt this monster down, and Professor Pierre Arronax, a French scientist specializing in the study of undersea life, is invited to join. The ship Abraham Lincoln departs New York in pursuit of the creature, with the professor aboard. In an altercation with the beast, Arronax, his trusty servant Conseil, and a Canadian harpooner named Ned Land, are thrown overboard. These three are unexpectedly rescued by the very creature they came to hunt, which turns out to be not an animal at all but a submarine. The commander of this undersea vessel, dubbed the Nautilus, is the mysterious Captain Nemo, an intense man of astonishing intelligence who harbors a fervent hatred for the society of the surface world and considers the sea his personal dominion.

This novel is an exemplar of science fiction with a capital S. To truly enjoy this adventure, one must have an avid interest in the sciences, both natural and mechanical. The plot of the book is punctuated by several thrilling and memorable scenes, but in between such moments there are often chapters that are little more than extensive lists of fishes. It’s a wonder that Verne can rattle off so many species without tediously repeating himself, but in his hands these taxonomic catalogs transcend biology to become poetry. In many ways, this book resembles a fictional counterpart to Charles Darwin’s scientific memoir The Voyage of the Beagle. At any given moment, Verne might digress into the history of a shipwreck, an analysis of the salinity of seawater, or a primer on the formation of coral reefs. These departures from the plot can be frustrating, but those open to such forays into science-for-science’s-sake will find them fascinating, even when the discoveries of the past century have ultimately proven some of them erroneous. It’s amazing how much research Verne must have done to complete this book. His breadth of knowledge on all matters oceanic is staggering.

The one area where the book is lacking is in its failure to thoroughly examine the motivation behind Captain Nemo’s misanthropy. To some extent, leaving such matters unsaid makes him a more delightful enigma, but the book could have benefited from some philosophical sparring between Nemo and Arronax, along the lines of the captain vs. captive dialogues in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf. That said, why concentrate on what’s missing when Verne has placed such a bountiful feast of wonder and excitement on the table? Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one classic that truly deserves to be regarded as a classic.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Will Eisner Reader: Seven Graphic Stories by a Comics Master by Will Eisner

A sampler platter of comics greatness
If you asked a roomful of comics enthusiasts who’s the greatest comics artist of all time, after some argument chances are the consensus would be Will Eisner. Back in the 1940s, his newspaper adventure series The Spirit shattered just about every preexisting convention of the young art form and blazed new trails in artistic innovation. Even into his senior years he was a trendsetter. His books of the 1970s were instrumental in the development of the graphic novel as we know it today. These days most of Eisner’s non-Spirit work is available from W. W. Norton and Company, including the Will Eisner Reader, first published in 1991. This 80-page paperback collects seven stories gathered from issues 6-8 of the periodical Will Eisner’s Quarterly, originally published in 1985 and 1986. Though not every story is excellent, overall this volume is a good showcase of Eisner’s later work, offering a surprising variety of styles and subject matter.

Eisner was one of the first comic artists to break out of the confining rigor of rectangular panels. By this point in his career the grid is almost nonexistent. Each page is a beautifully composed whole, subdivided by scenes which seamlessly flow into one another. Eisner masterfully employs whatever visual devices are necessary to tell the story. He never rested on his laurels but always strove to come up with the best graphic solution to express the narrative, even if that meant continually reinventing the wheel. Though The Spirit had a profound influence on all the masked crusaders that followed, once that famous series ran its course Eisner made a deliberate effort to move away from the superhero genre and tell stories of real people, thus influencing a whole new movement of comics verité. His characters even look like real people—often ugly, frumpy, and clumsy. Many of his stories deliver a moral message in the mystic manner of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone tales, and his work is often laced with humor that’s straight out of a Catskills resort. Given that Eisner was a senior citizen when he produced these stories, there is at times an antiquated feeling to the writing, but even when the story fails to amaze you can always marvel at the magnificent art.

The opening entry, “A Sunset in Sunshine City,” is the kind of ensemble-cast soap opera the Hernandez Bros. might have done for Love and Rockets. “The Telephone” is eight pages of creatively rendered slapstick suitable for an old Mad Magazine. “Detective Story” is exactly what the title implies, but with a supernatural twist. “The Long Hit” is a gangster tale with a sense of humor. “Winning” is a lighthearted piece about an underdog running a marathon. The weakest entry in the book is “The Appeal,” a sort of sequel to Franz Kafka’s The Trial. The final story, entitled “Humans,” is an incredibly moving statement on humanity captured in seven pithy pages, with some of the most beautiful art ever to spring from Eisner’s pen. It’s another fine example of how this artist was continually challenging and reinventing himself.

Honestly, if you like comics—any comics—it’s hard to go wrong with Eisner. The stories in this book are bite-sized, so if one doesn’t thrill you it’s only a few pages until you move onto the next offering. Fans of Eisner will enjoy the variety and the always exceptional art. For those new to Eisner’s non-Spirit work, this collection will provide a good introduction to his later work, allowing you to test the waters before tackling one of his heavier graphic novels like A Contract with God.

A panel from “Humans” by Will Eisner

Stories in this collection
A Sunset in Sunshine City 
The Telephone 
Detective Story 
The Long Hit 
The Appeal 

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Monday, October 20, 2014

The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf

A dark and chilling fable
Selma Lagerlöf of Sweden was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1909. She is perhaps best known for her children’s stories and fairy tales, but her 1903 novel The Treasure (Swedish title: Herr Arnes penningar) is one work of literature that definitely requires some adult supervision. Its only resemblance to a fairy tale is that it delivers a moral message, one that speaks of the conflict between love and loyalty, between desire and conscience.

This is a brief novel and one that’s full of surprises, so the less said about the plot the better. The story is set in the coastal town of Marstrand in the mid-16th century. It is February, and here the winters are so cold even the sea freezes over. The bleak frozen landscape contributes to the macabre atmosphere of the story. Torarin is a traveling fish seller who is making his rounds by horse and sledge across the icy wasteland, accompanied by his faithful dog Grim. He stops at Solberga Parsonage, where dwells Herr Arne, who is not only the local priest but also the wealthiest man in the area. As Torarin joins the family for dinner, a bizarre occurrence takes place. Herr Arne’s wife, suddenly overcome with terror, claims she can hear knives being sharpened at a neighboring farm two miles a way. While Herr Arne dismisses this premonition as a nervous hallucination, some at the table see it as an evil omen.

Despite being written over a century ago, The Treasure has a great deal of contemporary appeal. There’s nothing antiquated about Lagerlöf’s writing, the story is riveting, and the suspenseful scenes have lost none of their edge. This novel is crying out for a 21st-century film adaptation. There are disturbing violent crimes worthy of a Martin Scorcese or David Fincher movie, and supernatural phenomena that can compete with the creepiest Japanese or Korean horror movies of recent years. The thrills and chills in Lagerlöf’s narrative, however, are secondary to its insight into humanity. Ultimately, The Treasure is a novel about the choices that people make, and how they end up paying for them.

This novel is only about 60 or 70 pages in length, but it has a power and gravity to it that makes it feel like a much more substantial work of literature. You don’t have to be a lover of classic literature to enjoy this book. Readers of all stripes will be shocked, moved, and enlightened by Lagerlöf’s stirring story.

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Spanish by Pédro Antonio de Alarcón, et al.

A preoccupation with the supernatural
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón
Most English-language readers have little if any knowledge of the literature of Spain. If asked to name three works of Spanish (not Latin American) literature, the typical American would be hard pressed to come up with anything beyond Don Quixote and El Cid. Back in 1898, the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons tried to rectify this big black hole in our cultural consciousness by including a volume of Spanish short fiction in their Stories by Foreign Authors series. This collection features five works of the late 19th century by four Spanish authors. Though, given the widespread ignorance of Spanish fiction, any knowledge on the subject is welcome, overall the pieces chosen don’t paint a particularly flattering picture of their nation’s literary scene.

The first three stories in the book all touch upon the horror genre, albeit in an antiquated, highly romanticized way. Though they may have been aiming for the eerie chills and deep emotional drama of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, they all come across as quite tame. The mere mention of a ghost might have been enough to tingle the spine of 19th-century readers, but today’s audience actually requires that their spirits do something scary beyond just making an appearance. A preoccupation with the supernatural is evident in all these stories. Even the less gothic entries make mention of curses or divine intervention. In the early to mid-1800s, the Christian Spaniards fought a series of wars against the Muslim Moors, first driving them out of Spain and then fighting them in North Africa. The Moors figure into a few of the stories, and reference is often made to their engaging in the unholy arts of pagan black magic. It doesn’t appear that the authors really believe such rumors, but rather they merely document such prejudices as a historically accurate representation of the mindset of the times.

The best entry in the book by far is “Moors and Christians” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. While dismantling the ruins of an old tower on his property, the Alcalde of a formerly Moorish town finds a piece of parchment he suspects will lead him to a hidden treasure. Unfortunately it’s in Arabic, so he needs to get it translated. In order to carry that out, the manuscript changes hands several times, and each step of the way one more person is let in on the lucrative secret. This is a great story. It’s really funny and keeps the reader guessing. It’s regrettably hampered by some awkward and confusing passages, most likely the fault of the translator rather than the author. Unfortunately, that’s a defect that’s common to all the tales in this volume.

The final story, “Bread Cast Upon the Waters,” was written by Fernán Caballero, actually the pen name of a Spanish marquesa. In a mountain village, a humble family of good samaritans adopts the son of a starving couple and raise him as their own son. Eventually this boy and his brother go off to war and fight the Moors at the 1860 Battle of Tetuán. At first the story of this family is very engaging, but the piece soon turns into an ultranationalistic, ultra-Christian propaganda piece. That said, if you don’t mind that sort of thing, it’s rather well-written, but it’s an odd choice for a literary collection like this.

I’ve read several of the ten volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, and this is my least favorite so far. The shortcomings of this book should not be perceived as a reflection on the merits of Spanish literature, but rather as the result of poor editorial choices. Those hoping for an education in Spanish letters may want to look elsewhere.

Stories in this collection
The Tall Woman by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón 
The White Butterfly by José Selgas 
Maese Pérez, the Organist by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer 
Moors and Christians by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón 
Bread Cast Upon the Waters by Fernán Caballero 

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

TekWar by William Shatner

The Rockford Files meets The Jetsons
William Shatner’s science fiction novel TekWar, originally published in 1989, is the first in a series of nine Tek books. It also gave rise to a comic book series, a video game, and a television series. Much of this success, of course, is due to its author’s preexisting fame. It’s easy to take pot shots at actors moonlighting as novelists, but as a fan of the genre I approached this book with every intention of giving Shatner a fair shake. Ultimately, however, even my middling expectations were disappointed.

Jake Cardigan is a former cop who was sentenced to 15 years in suspended animation for dealing in a drug known as Tek. Tek is distributed in the form of computer chips which, when coupled with an apparatus that’s wired to the brain, conjure up tailor-made hallucinations in the mind of the user, somewhat like the virtual-reality drug that Ralph Fiennes peddles in the 1985 movie Strange Days. In the year 2120, after four years of incarceration, Cardigan is awoken from his deep sleep and released from prison, though he’s not quite sure why or to whom he owes his good fortune. This is just one of the mysteries that faces Cardigan as, stripped of his badge, he goes to work for a private detective agency. He soon finds that, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it, he just can’t keep himself from getting drawn into the criminal world of Tek.

The idea of a hard-boiled detective story set in the future is nothing new, of course. Pulp fiction writers have been making Sam-Spade-in-space stories since the days of Dashiell Hammett. Shatner’s vision of the future is remarkably antiquated, like something out of a ‘40s or ‘50s pulp magazine. His efforts at sci-fi speculation don’t stretch much beyond adding prefixes like plas-, space-, and vid- to the front of preexisting nouns. Many common objects are made of lucite, and there are robots everywhere. Back in 1989, mobile phones and the internet were still in their infancy, but given that Star Trek foreshadowed such things, Shatner could have stretched his imagination a bit. Instead, the primary mode of communication is faxing, and everyone has an alcove in their home devoted to a videophone. All this matters little, however, because the novel is not really concerned with the future anyway. It’s just a mediocre detective story dressed up in futuristic trappings.

Not surprisingly, TekWar can’t compare with the science fiction masterpieces of authors like Frank Herbert or Phillip K. Dick, but it could probably hold its own against 90% of what passes for fiction at your typical airport newsstand if it didn’t drag out so long. I thought I was getting a fun piece of pulpy escapism, but what I got was a chore to read. In each chapter, a new character is introduced who provides Cardigan with a little piece of the puzzle. With the exception of name, race, and gender, however, there’s little to distinguish any of these people or androids from one another, so there’s little reason to care about any of them. What’s worse, Cardigan doesn’t really use any detective reasoning to solve the mystery, he simply follows the trail of bread crumbs left for him by this series of nondescript characters until the solution falls into his lap and the plot finally fizzles to a halt.

TekWar isn’t terrible, but at best it’s a marginally competent attempt at science fiction. Were it not for Shatner’s name on the cover, it would have quietly faded into the obscurity it deserves.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Not enough Treasure Island, too much Waverley
These days Robert Louis Stevenson is best remembered for Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but another of his novels that consistently appears on lists of the greatest adventure books of all time is Kidnapped. Although no doubt a hit with the adolescent boys of 1886, today’s fans of classic literature might find themselves wondering why this rather dull adventure is still worthy of note.

The story takes place in 1751. David Balfour, a Scottish youth, is orphaned at the age of 17. The local minister, a friend of the family, gives David a letter of introduction to an uncle he’s never met, Ebenezer Balfour of the House of Shaws. David, who grew up poor, is surprised to find his father’s surname connected with a wealthy estate like that of Shaws. He travels to the seaside city of Cramond in hopes that his uncle will aid him in securing a position by which he might make a living. Far from welcoming his nephew with open arms, however, the curmudgeonly Uncle Ebenezer greets his long lost relative with disdain, grants him the minimum of hospitality, and even threatens to do him harm. Under the pretense of conducting some business related to his father’s estate, Ebenezer leads David to the harbor, where the boy is introduced to a ship’s captain named Hoseason. After being lured aboard the captain’s brig, David is taken captive. Through his uncle’s evil scheming, he is to be transported to America and sold as a plantation slave.

That brief synopsis certainly sounds like it has the making of a great adventure novel. The problem with Kidnapped is that so little of the book has to do with the kidnapping. The scenes aboard the ship are by far the best in the book, but Stevenson soon abandons the nautical narrative in favor of a plot line involving the Jacobite Uprising, in which Scottish Highlanders rose up against the reigning British monarch in an attempt to reestablish the Stuart dynasty on the throne. The story here is based on a real historical event called the Appin Murder, which would have been common knowledge to the readers of Stevenson’s day. David finds himself mixed up with a bunch of lawless Highlander rebels, and the novel suffers for it. Having recently read Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, imagine my chagrin to find Stevenson boring me to tears with the same subject matter. After its auspicious beginning, the novel devolves into chapter after chapter of uneventful pursuit. There’s a whole lot of going places but not much getting there. The plot is quite predictable, and Stevenson concludes the whole thing with a half-baked ending.

Much like Walter Scott, Stevenson was worshipped as a god by many notable writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of whom penned tales of shanghaied sailors far more satisfying than Kidnapped, among them The Sea-Wolf by Jack London and Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris. Kidnapped just doesn’t contain enough of that old Treasure Island magic. With the exception of one good action scene aboard the brig, the thrills aren’t thrilling enough and the bad guys aren’t scary enough. In 1893, Stevenson published a sequel to Kidnapped called Catriona. After reading this disappointing book, however, accompanying David Balfour on another adventure is the last thing I want to do.

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Old Books by Dead Nobel Laureates

Congratulations to Patrick Modiano
French novelist Patrick Modiano has just been announced as the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. Old Books by Dead Guys offers a hearty congratulations to him even though, not surprisingly, I’ve never read any of his work. Year after year people argue over whether the winner is truly the world’s greatest writer, or whether the whole thing is one big political contest, yet despite such quibbles the authors chosen are generally of high calibre and certainly worthy of accolades. What I enjoy about the annual Nobel festivities is that it provides a much-needed reminder to my self-centric nation that great literature does indeed exist outside the borders of the United States. Of course, many of the world’s greatest authors never won a Nobel, and the prize has only been in existence since 1901, which rules out a lot of Old Books by Dead Guys. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to explore new authors in world literature, the list of Nobel Laureates is always a good place to start.

So far Old Books by Dead Guys has reviewed 34 works by 10 Nobel Laureates. Not surprisingly, they all come from the first half of the 20th century. Click on the links below to read the complete reviews.

Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1903 Nobel) Norway

Henryk Sienkiewicz (1905 Nobel) Poland

Rudyard Kipling (1907 Nobel) United Kingdom

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America

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

Hermann Hesse (1946 Nobel) Switzerland (born in Germany)

Look for more reviews of Nobel Prize-winning authors at Old Books by Dead Guys. If I review enough of them, I’ll make this an annual event.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: German II by Berthold Auerbach, et al.

A masterpiece from Auerbach, a dud from von Chamisso
Berthold Auerbach
This book is the second of two volumes of German short fiction included in the ten-volume series Stories by Foreign Authors, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1898. It contains English translations of four stories by four German authors. While the first book of German stories in this series, subtitled German I, leaned toward the lighter side of 19th-century literature, this second volume delivers more of the deep thoughts and dark drama one might expect from this romantic, philosophical period in literary history.

So far I’ve read five of the volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, and the best story I’ve encountered yet is “Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas” by Berthold Auerbach. It takes place in 1768, when Gellert, a real historical figure, was professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig. He is a well-respected man but poor, sickly, and dejected. When a peasant reads a passage of Gellert’s verse, he is so touched by it that he sets out to meet the great man and give him a gift. Gellert’s faith in God and life is renewed by this simple act. This story is quite moving and profound. Although the philosophical message is expressed in Christian terms, in accordance with Gellert’s philosophy, there is a core of ancient stoicism to it that can be valuable to nonbelievers as well. As I read it, I couldn’t resist highlighting several passages. It’s one of those deeply affecting stories that really makes you consider your own life and look at it from a different perspective.

Also quite moving, though not as philosophical, is Leopold Kompert’s “A Ghetto Violet.” A teenage brother and sister living in a Jewish ghetto learn that their father will be returning home after five years of incarceration. In the past, he was an inveterate gambler whose transgressions drove their mother to die of despair. Has he learned from his mistakes, and how will the children react to his return? Overall the story is very good, though some of the dialog is a bit clunky, possibly from the translation, and it could have used a less expected ending.

“The Severed Hand” by Wilhelm Hauff belongs to the horror/mystery drama and has an air of Edgar Allen Poe about it. Zaleukos is a doctor and merchant from Constantinople whose wanderings eventually lead him to settle in Florence. One night a mysterious stranger asks him to make an unusual house call, and for the sake of surprise, the less said about it the better. This story reminds me of a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle entitled “The Case of Lady Sannox.” Both stories revolve around a fictional doctor making a stupid mistake that a real doctor would never make. Hauff’s tale is stylishly done but ultimately based on a silly premise.

The collection ends with “Peter Schlemihl,” a novella by Adelbert von Chamisso that takes up fully half the book. It tells the tale of the title character, who sells his shadow for a bottomless bag of gold. Stylistically, it feels like a Twilight Zone episode written by Balzac. Though fascinating at first, it goes on way too long and devolves into comic absurdity. There’s some indelible imagery and a few fun moments of dark humor, but ultimately it all feels rather pointless.

Overall this is a fairly good, diverse sampling of German stories. Your enjoyment of it will largely depend on your tolerance for “Peter Schlemihl.” Auerbach’s selection alone makes this collection well worth downloading.

Stories in this collection
Christian Gellert’s Last Christmas by Berthold Auerbach 
A Ghetto Violet by Leopold Klompert 
The Severed Hand by Wilhelm Hauff 
Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso 

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