Friday, October 30, 2015

A Trip to Plutopia by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius

A sarcastic oligarchic paradise
A Trip to Plutopia, a short story by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, was originally published in 1918 in the pages of the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. Haldeman-Julius was editor of the Appeal, but is probably best known as the publisher of the Little Blue Books, a series of inexpensive paperbacks sold by the hundreds of millions at newsstands and through mail order. Around 1919, A Trip to Plutopia was published as a 16-page book that sold for 15 cents. It was No. 8 in The Appeal’s Pocket Series, a red-jacketed precursor to the Little Blue Books. Though Haldeman-Julius’s little books covered a variety of topics—literature, philosophy, history, science, even sex education—he often used the series to promote his socialist political views. Such is the case with A Trip to Plutopia.

Plutopia is an island nation of 50,000 inhabitants. Of these, 49,500 work like slaves while the remaining 500 enjoy the fruits of their labors. Though this may sound like a depressing dystopian vision, Haldeman-Julius sarcastically depicts it as a utopia, and thus it becomes comedy. The narrator interviews representatives of Plutopia’s two classes, both of whom seem pleased as punch with the arrangement of their ideal society. The workers labor 12 hours a day, live in communal housing, and wear paper sacks emblazoned with numbers that serve as their names. The wealthy plutocrats live in palaces dreaming up ways to cut costs while squeezing the last drop of labor out of their workforce.

Haldeman-Julius takes examples of the actual atrocious working conditions of his era and exaggerates them to comic extremes. What’s not funny about it, of course, is that to some extent Plutopia is a reflection of reality. At the time of the story’s publication, big business was treating labor like slaves, and there was little protective legislation to prevent it. While the possibility of a socialist revolution or a strike in Plutopia is mentioned, the workers are too complacent to undertake such a fight or too foolish to realize when they’re being exploited by The Man.

A Trip to Plutopia will appeal to those who appreciate the labor literature of the early twentieth century, such as the more polemical writings of Upton Sinclair or Jack London. Sinclair once penned a similar satire called The Millennium, yet Haldeman-Julius’s story is funnier. In fact, A Trip to Plutopia is almost perfect for what it is, yet a mere 14 pages of text can’t help coming across as somewhat inconsequential. On the other hand, unlike Sinclair’s Millennium, Haldeman-Julius gets points for knowing when to stop and not dragging the joke out so long that it overstays its welcome.

Though penned almost a century ago, A Trip to Plutopia still bears relevance for today’s world. Though working conditions have improved, the 1% is still the 1%, and income disparity is still a huge problem in America. By depicting ridiculous wealth inequality as if it were natural and favorable, Haldeman-Julius points out the absurdity of the system that allows it to continue.
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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Anthem by Ayn Rand

A powerfully preachy dystopian fable
These days Ayn Rand may be best known as the patron saintess of libertarian politics, but lets not forget she was also a writer of fiction. It’s possible to appreciate Rand’s books without buying into her philosophy heart and soul. I enjoy Rand’s work not because I agree with her political views, but because I agree with her literary views. As an outspoken proponent of Romanticism in the vein of Victor Hugo, Rand believed literature and art should depict an idealized view of the world that celebrates the human spirit. Unlike perhaps any other novelist of the modern era, Rand’s books convince you that they were written to change the world. Though such books come across as propagandistic, I prefer a novel that pushes a philosophy to one that merely shows me a slice of life. A preachy novel is better than a pedestrian one, and as far as preachy novels go, no one lays it on thicker than Rand.

Anthem, originally published in 1938, is a science fiction novella. Rand grew up in Soviet Russia, and here she presents a dystopian vision of the future that illustrates communism taken to its extreme. The hero of the story, Equality 7-2521, lives in a world where any expression of individualism is punishable by death. Though the story takes place in the future, the society depicted is pre-mechanical. Its technology is stalled at the level of horse and candle, and its moral code resembles that of colonial New England Puritanism crossed with the eugenics of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. This future world has embraced the idea of equality and brotherhood to such an extent that singular pronouns no longer exist, and the narrator is forced to refer to himself as “we.” Equality 7-2521 has lived his whole life under strictly enforced conformity. As he becomes a man he starts to realize that he is different from his brothers and begins to exhibit a rebellious spirit. Cursed with a scientific mind, he wants to explore how the world works and begins to question why things are the way they are. The powers that be, however, crush every innovative thought and will not tolerate his independent nature.

As science fiction, Anthem is brilliant. Like Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, Rand presents a dystopian vision of the future that’s vividly conceived and disturbingly thought-provoking. The narration by Equality 7-2521 serves as a vicarious indoctrination into his brainwashed view of the world. All the “we”s, “they”s, and “our”s contribute to the authenticity of the experience, but at times the relentless plurals can get confusing and annoying. Imagine an entire book narrated by Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Overall, however, I admired Rand’s riveting storytelling and the fervent thrust of her individualist message. In the last couple chapters she kind of lost me though, as Equality 7-2521 began to sound less like an inspirational freedom fighter and more like an up-and-coming dictator with a grand plan.

Anthem is Rand’s shortest novel and the only one of her works that’s freely available in the public domain. These two qualities make it a perfect introduction to her work for those who have never read her writing, yet at the same time it only hints at the complexity and propagandistic bombast of her more monumental works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. While those bigger books require some deep thinking, this quick read will appeal to any science fiction fan who appreciates a good dystopian tale.
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Monday, October 26, 2015

The Wolf-Leader by Alexandre Dumas

Faustian folklore of the French forests
The Wolf-Leader, a novel by Alexandre Dumas, was originally published in 1857 under the French title of Le Meneur de Loups. In the lengthy but entertaining introduction, Dumas explains that the novel is based on folktales he grew up hearing in his hometown of Villers-Cotterêts. This particular tale was told to him by a gamekeeper who often took him hunting as a young man. The novel contains elements of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, yet it times is also quite comic. Though deservedly not as well-known as classics like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, The Wolf-Leader is nevertheless a lively, enjoyable, and engaging read.

The story takes place in the vicinity of Villers-Cotterêts around 1780. Thibault, a maker of sabots (wooden shoes) lives in a hut in the woods outside of town. One day the local baron, the Lord of Vez, passes through his yard while on a hunt, and the two have an encounter. Thibault makes some smart aleck remarks, and the baron beats him for his insolence. Soon after, Thibault tries to poach a deer, and for that he is whipped. Incensed at his ill treatment, Thibault vows that he will take his revenge upon the Lord of Vez. As if on cue, a wolf suddenly appears, and not just any wolf. This wolf, who walks on his hind legs and talks, turns out to be the devil’s emissary in lupine form. The sabot maker and the wolf strike a deal. Thibault is promised remarkable powers by which he may wreak his vengeance, but what the wolf gets in return is not made explicitly clear until well after the deal has been made.

Dumas crams a lot of witty, bantering dialogue into the novel and there are some funny slapstick moments too. As the story progresses it becomes more and more of a horror novel, with macabre scenes that would have been scary to a nineteenth-century audience. The Wolf-Leader has been described as a werewolf novel, but it’s really more complicated than that. For today’s readers, who have seen a lot of werewolves on film, Thibault is not that kind of werewolf. What’s frightening about the story is not a monstrous creature but rather the Faustian pact the Thibault makes with the devil. Nevertheless, there’s a surprising amount of violence in the novel, and randy hints at sexual shenanigans as well. A big part of the fun of this novel is the fact that the hero you’re rooting for is not a good guy, much like H. G. Wells’s The Invisible Man or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s easy to put yourself in Thibault’s place and wonder what you might do with such power if you were in his place.

Thibault makes a brief statement in the book about the inequality of the class hierarchy. His evil doings are a rebellion against the system that puts the Lord of Vez above him, based on birth alone. In other words, Thibault is sick and tired of being put down by The Man. Dumas doesn’t really follow through with this rebellious tone, however. Overall, the book offers a message of being happy with what you have rather than being swallowed up by envy, hatred, and anger.

The Wolf-Leader is not the greatest work Dumas ever wrote, but it is a good strong effort that doesn’t disappoint. Folktales and fantasy usually aren’t my thing, but I enjoyed this fun and fantastic tale. It strongest asset is its author’s sense of humor. If anyone can make chills, thrills, and laughter work together, it’s Dumas.
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Friday, October 23, 2015

The Last of the Incas by Gustave Aimard

The pallid perils of Patagonia
Gustave Aimard was a 19th-century French writer of adventure novels. During his eventful life, he made more than one trip to America and claimed that he had been adopted by a tribe of Comanches. Most of his 43 novels take place in North or South America and often prominently feature Native American characters and culture. The Last of the Incas was originally published in 1864 under the French title of L’Araucan. It is also known by the title of Le fils du Soleil. Since recently becoming aware of Aimard’s existence I have been looking forward to reading one of his books. As a fan of vintage adventure fiction, I’m always on the lookout for some undiscovered Jules Verne or Alexandre Dumas. Unfortunately, despite my high hopes, or maybe because of them, The Last of the Incas turned out to be a big disappointment.

The story takes place in Patagonian Argentina, in and around a coastal town called Carmen, the site of a Spanish colonial fortress. In the opening chapter we are introduced to a band of bomberos. These are rugged fighting men whose job it is to roam the surrounding pampas and scout the movements of the local indigenous population. These bomberos become aware of a plot by the Indians to launch an organized attack on the Spanish settlement. The leader of the Indians is a chief called Nocobotha, “the grand Toqui of the Aucas,” who is rumored to be the last surviving descendant of the Inca empire. Nefarious and cunning, he unites the local tribes in his scheme to overthrow the white government that has occupied his people’s lands. He will stop at nothing to destroy those who stand in his way. What follows is a complex and convoluted tale of warfare, espionage, and romance.

I enjoyed The Last of the Incas at first. When Aimard introduces the reader to the South American setting and its peoples, the writing is reminiscent of the works of James Fenimore Cooper. As the story proceeds, however, it devolves into something more equivalent to the popular adventure of an old movie serial, with what feels like an endless cycle of capture and escape. Though the subject matter of the book should inspire thrills, the dull, wooden prose deadens any potential suspense. When each chapter ends with its cliffhanger moment, instead of feeling eager to read on I was left wondering if I even wanted to continue. The book features an ensemble cast of characters who are all basically indistinguishable from each other except for name, race, and social class. The Natives are all evil, the Spaniards are all noble, and the peasants and gauchos are all earnest, benevolent, and subservient. With names like Pedrito, Panchito, Patito, and Pepe it’s hard to tell everyone apart, and the Spanish Dons are practically interchangeable. All are devoid of personality and speak with the same voice. The characters keep running back and forth between the town of Carmen and a fortified country estate. Most of the time I couldn’t keep track of where they were or what they were all doing. It felt like the same scenes and conversations kept repeating themselves, and even the climactic ending felt flat.

It turns out I liked the idea of Aimard—the French writer of Native American pulp fiction—much more than I like his actual writing. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and will probably try another of his books at some point, but not soon. Hopefully The Last of the Incas is not indicative of his oeuvre, and somewhere among his 43 novels hides a long-lost adventure classic.
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Friday, October 16, 2015

The Spirit of Sweetwater by Hamlin Garland

Love, pure as a mountain spring
Hamlin Garland is no longer a household name in literature, but at one time he was hailed (like many others have been) as the “Dean of American Letters.” He was an influential early practitioner of American realism whose impact can be seen in the works of later authors like Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. Born in Wisconsin, he eventually lived in Iowa, Illinois, South Dakota, Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and California and wrote regionalist novels set all over the West and Midwest.

The Spirit of Sweetwater takes place in the mountains of Colorado. Richard Clement has lived in Sweetwater Springs for several years, during which time he has struck it rich with a gold mine. The only thing missing from his life is someone to share it with, so he hangs out at the local therapeutic springs resort scoping out prospective wives. One day a woman from the East arrives who catches his attention. Beautiful and demure, Ellice Ross is everything Clement has been looking for in a bride. Unfortunately, she is dying of consumption. Nevertheless, the rugged millionaire miner sets out to win the affection of this tragic young beauty.

Realism is a broad category, and this book tends to push the boundary toward romantic melodrama. The details of life in Colorado and Clement’s career in the mining industry are essentially naturalistic, but the story is so wholesome and earnest it makes most episodes of The Little House on the Prairie seem edgy. I prefer a grittier brand of regionalism, and I know Garland did write some books that satisfy that criteria, but in this one the sunshine and roses outlook definitely predominates. Thankfully, it takes an unexpected turn in the last act that keeps it from being overly formulaic. In general, however, it’s a simple, straightforward tale of love and atonement. When originally published in 1898, it was a volume in the Ladies’ Home Journal Library of Fiction. As long as you don’t expect a profound and gripping work of literature, it’s a pleasant, satisfying read.

The Spirit of Sweetwater is a brief novel, and has the brisk and fluffy feel of a quickie. In 1906 it was expanded into a lengthier work entitled Witch’s Gold. If you appreciate American naturalism, Garland is always a safe bet for a good read. The Spirit of Sweetwater is not his most powerful or accomplished work, but if you’re in the mood for some Rocky Mountain sunshine and a wholesome morality tale, it’ll do.
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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert

Like a gory Carthaginian Sears catalog
In 1856, Gustave Flaubert became famous with his debut novel Madame Bovary, a ground-breaking work of realism that greatly influenced the subsequent development of literature. Despite being hailed as the poster child of realism, Flaubert did a literary 180 six years later with Salammbô, a romantic epic set in ancient Carthage. Even more surprising than his willingness to throw off his laurels and undertake this grand experiment is the fact that he succeeds at it.

Salammbô takes place in the third century BC in and around Carthage, in present-day Tunisia. It is a historical novel based on actual events that took place just after the First Punic War (Punic is a synonym for Carthaginian). In that war, Carthage hired a host of mercenaries from all over North Africa to help them fight the Romans. Now, with the fighting over and the treaty signed, those mercenaries are eager to be paid, and Carthage isn’t coming through on its promises. So the mercenaries—also referred to as the Barbarians—revolt against their former employers and start pillaging Carthage and its territories. They begin with the house of Hamilcar Barca, one of the chief magistrates and military leaders of Carthage. Barca is not at home, but his beautiful daughter, Salammbô, addresses the unruly crowd of unpaid warriors. Upon seeing her, Matho—a Libyan who becomes a leader of the mercenaries—immediately falls in love with her, and from that moment their destinies are entwined.

Despite the epic warfare, the pace of Salammbô is lethargic and the mood is lugubrious. There is little room for plot amidst the mountain of descriptive detail that Flaubert has massed. For most of its length, the book reads like the catalog of a Carthaginian department store. Clothing, furniture, home decoration, jewelry, cosmetics, cookware, and hardware (weapons), are lovingly depicted in intricate detail. The amount of research Flaubert must have done to accumulate all these atmospheric details is staggering. More than a novel, the book resembles a gallery of paintings by romantic masters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérome, or Jacques-Louis David. In a chapter in which Salammbô prays to her god, for instance, that’s all that happens. Nothing else. At times this can get tedious. You wish something would happen, but people are too busy rubbing their cheeks with vermillion or outlining their eyes with antimony. Luckily, Flaubert applies the same descriptive faculty to diseases, wounds, and violent atrocities. The book is loaded with gore galore, which ends up being its saving grace. I will confess that I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting whom during the military scenes, but the images Flaubert creates of brutal ancient warfare are indelible.

Amid the bloodshed he still manages to weave a story, however tenuous. The narrative of Salammbô is not as well-constructed as other 19th-century sagas of the ancient world like Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis or Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, yet somehow more than them Flaubert’s tale manages to ascend to the legendary heights of ancient epics like The Iliad or The Aeneid. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, because it frequently frustrates and occasionally bores, but although I didn’t always enjoy it I always admired it. I’ve read Madame Bovary and The Sentimental Education, and both left me feeling lukewarm. Salammbô, however, for all its faults, is one Flaubert book I’m unlikely to forget.
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Monday, October 12, 2015

Absalom’s Hair by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson

When good lives go bad
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
Absalom’s Hair is a novel by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature and one of the “Four Greats” of Norwegian literature. The story begins with an unlikely marriage between an intelligent, determined young woman and an abusive old adventurer. The product of this union is a son, Rafael Kaas. At a young age, Rafael demonstrates an exceptional talent for engineering, and his mother works to develop his faculties and secure his career prospects. Her love for her son becomes oppressive, however, and Rafael chafes under her motherly tyranny, especially when she attempts to separate him from the woman he loves.

I enjoyed Absalom’s Hair at first. I appreciated its depiction of Norwegian life, both at the rural seaside estate of Hellebergene—Rafael’s ancestral home—and in the urban setting of Christiania (present-day Oslo). The characters were unique and intriguing. When things were going well for Rafael, I rooted for him and wished him success. When things started going badly for him, however, I had little sympathy for him because his misfortunes were largely due to his own stupid choices. The book ends up being a struggle between three or four main characters, all of whom treat each other like garbage. The title refers to a biblical legend which teaches a moral lesson; a lesson which is applied rather heavy-handedly in the book’s climax. By the time I got to the final third of the book, I had lost interest and was merely reading to get it done, out of morbid curiosity.

Bjørnson is a great writer and a brilliant observer of human nature, but this is not one of his better books. Many writers strive to depict genuine human emotions and psychological motivations, and Bjørnson does it very well, but without a moving story to back it up it all just seems like self-indulgent navel-gazing. In that sense, despite being over a century old, the book was a little too modern for my tastes. It resembles too many of today’s novels in that it examines a dysfunctional family and asks the reader to identify with them and feel their pain, as if such psychological examination were enough to constitute a satisfying book. As a fan of older literature, I would have preferred a little more plot and a lot less angst.

I’m not sure when Bjørnson wrote this work, but the English edition came out in 1908. Also included in that edition was a short story entitled “A Painful Memory from Childhood,” which is also included in many of today’s ebook editions. In this story, the narrator gives an account of a murder that took place in his home village when he was a young boy, and how the killer was brought to justice. It’s brutal matter-of-factness is gripping and compellingly disturbing. Unlike Absalom’s Hair, it shows off Bjornson at the height of his literary powers. I have previously been impressed by his short stories “The Father” and “The Railroad and the Churchyard,” and his novel A Happy Boy. For anyone interested in Norwegian lit, I would recommend spending a couple bucks on The Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson Megapack, the most comprehensive ebook collection of this author’s works in English that I have yet seen.
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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Old Books by Dead Nobel Laureates 2015

Congratulations to Svetlana Alexievich
The Belarusian writer has just been announced as the winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. Last year at this time, Old Books by Dead Guys posted its first Old Books by Dead Nobel Laureates listing of all the novels, stories, and plays written by Nobel Prize-winning authors that have been reviewed at this blog. At that time 34 works had been reviewed. Since last year’s Nobel announcement, four new authors and 13 more works have been added to the total. 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

Selma Lagerlöf (1909 Nobel) Sweden

Paul von Heyse (1910 Nobel) Germany

Maurice Maeterlinck (1911 Nobel) Belgium

Gerhart Hauptmann (1912 Nobel) Germany

Knut Hamsun (1920 Nobel) Norway

Anatole France (1921 Nobel) France

Wladyslaw Reymont (1924 Nobel) Poland

Sinclair Lewis (1930 Nobel) United States of America

Eugene O’Neill (1936 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)

See you next year!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In Vain by Henryk Sienkiewicz

An inauspicious debut
According to the brief introduction by translator Jeremiah Curtin, In Vain was the first published novel by Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, written when he was only 18 years old. Originally published in 1876 under the Polish title of Na marne, Curtin’s English edition did not come out until 1899, after Sienkiewicz had achieved some worldwide renown as the author of romantic epics like Quo Vadis and “The Trilogy” (With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wolodyjowski). In Vain is no epic, but it is definitely romantic, in the 19th-century sense of the word. Curtin describes the book as a portrait of student life, and that’s certainly how it starts out, but not how it ends.

A young man named Yosef Shvarts (Curtin always opts for phonetic spellings of Polish proper nouns) arrives in Kiev to attend school. He runs into an old hometown friend, Gustav, and the two decide to room together. Yosef is the son of a blacksmith, so although he is lucky to be able to attend school, money is scarce and he must live frugally. The two friends hang out at a student club with a group of schoolmates who share their bohemian lifestyle. Gustav is in love with Helena, an attractive widow who has been traumatized by the death of her husband and child. Upon meeting Yosef, however, she immediately becomes obsessed with him because he reminds her of her deceased husband. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with Gustav and causes a great deal of tension between the two roommates.

Meanwhile, Yosef falls in love with science and studies to become a doctor, but that element of the narrative is neglected in favor of the love story. The novel harkens back to an earlier and far more conservative age when kissing a woman was as good as a marriage proposal (although at times it’s hinted, ever so subtly, that there’s more than just kissing going on). Men of a certain class were expected to conduct themselves honorably in all things, like the knights of old. To play games with a woman’s virtue would spell the end of one’s reputation as a gentleman. Under such restrictive conventions of romance, Yosef finds himself in a quandary between love and duty.

The first half of the book is very engaging. The depiction of student life in Kiev is interesting, and the characters and their relationships are intriguing. Eventually, however, the novel regresses into a rather formulaic he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not story, reminiscent of some of the fairy tale romances that are more at home in Sienkiewicz’s historical epics. The character of Augustinovich, a friend and confidant of Yosef’s, even resembles The Trilogy’s Falstaffian character Pan Zagloba in his sense of humor, his gregariousness, and his propensity for meddling in others’ love lives.

In Vain is not a terrible book, but it may be the worst piece of work I’ve ever read from this excellent author. Only diehard fans of Sienkiewicz should give this one a try.
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