Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Miraculous Revenge (Little Blue Book No. 215) by George Bernard Shaw

Brevity its only virtue
The Miraculous Revenge is a short story by George Bernard Shaw, originally published in 1885. The e-book version you’re likely to find online, however, is a reproduction of the story as it was reprinted in one of the Little Blue Books, an immensely popular series of inexpensive pocket paperbacks published by Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, a radical publisher based in southeastern Kansas. Haldeman-Julius, sometimes referred to as the “Henry Ford of Literature,” published thousands of titles in the series and sold hundreds of millions of copies. This story from Shaw is number 215 in the series, which was probably published around 1923 or 1924. Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925, is best known as a playwright, but he was also an influential public intellectual who championed the same sort of socialist political causes as Haldeman-Julius. Given his prolific output, it was inevitable that Haldeman-Julius would publish the work of Shaw, a man for whom he probably held great admiration and esteem. That makes it all the more unfortunate and baffling, however, that he picked such a terrible story to showcase.

The Miraculous Revenge takes place in Ireland, and is narrated by an Englishman named Zeno Legge. He is described as “mad,” which in literary terms is an undefined mental illness that allows the hero to act like a jerk in public, speak in non-sequiturs, and generally annoy people. Legge travels to Dublin to visit his uncle, a Cardinal Archbishop. Soon fed up with his nephew and a little frightened of him too, the Cardinal dispatches the crazy man as a poorly chosen emissary to the small town of Four Mile Water, where a Christian miracle has been recently reported. Legge is tasked with investigating the veracity of the miraculous claims and reporting back to his uncle. The madman can’t help but engage in mischief, of course, and soon the townspeople are tired of him also.

As is the reader. The story is intended to be comic, and it’s written as slapstick dressed up in the vocabulary and syntax of high-brow 19th-century literature. It’s infused with anti-religious sentiment, which is just fine by me, but one wishes the commentary would have been more biting and less absurd. If anything, the silly miracle that occurs in Four Mile Water is viewed with approbation rather than skepticism. The only one who really comes out looking like a fool is the madman, and what’s so novel about that? The tale ends with a twist which fails to surprise or delight. Turn-of-the-last-century intellectuals may have guffawed at this satirical farce, but today’s readers are unlikely to chuckle.

Very few of the Little Blue Books are available as downloadable e-books, and unfortunately this is one of them. Shaw may have been an important figure in the literature and politics of his day, and for all I know he probably deserved his Nobel Prize, but this story is clearly not indicative of his talents and doesn’t deserve to be read. Even though it only costs about twenty minutes, there are better ways to spend that time.
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