Friday, September 29, 2017

A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings by Knut Hamsun

Witness to a dying marriage
Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun’s 1909 novel A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings is the sequel to 1906’s Under the Autumn Star and the second book in a trilogy of works by the Norwegian Nobel laureate. In English translation, the two books have been published together in one volume entitled Wanderers or The Wanderer. The third book in the trilogy, The Last Joy (or, Look Back in Happiness) was published in 1912.

While Under the Autumn Star was little longer than a novella, A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings is a more substantial work, about twice as long as its predecessor. In both books, the narrator is a man named Knud Pedersen, which also happens to be Hamsun’s birth name. Pedersen has previously lived a life of means in a big city, but later in life he chooses to live as an itinerant laborer, traveling from farm to farm over the rural countryside to find work as a handyman. This second book opens roughly six years after the conclusion of the first. The narrator, still wandering, returns to seek employment at the estate of Captain and Fruen (Mrs.) Falkenberg, one of his temporary residences in Under the Autumn Star. Some of the supporting characters from that volume also return, including his coworkers Grindhusen and Lars Falkenberg and the servant woman Emma.

While the first book had the feeling of an autobiographical novel or memoir, this one concentrates more on the Falkenbergs, with the narrator playing the role of an outside observer. Much of the goings-on in the Falkenberg house are related through the conversations of their servants and workmen. The Captain and his wife are having marital troubles, and both are fooling around with other people. Frankly, I found this direction less compelling than the previous novel. Under the Autumn Star was more of a personal examination of the narrator: his wanderlust, his personal growth, his inner conflicts, and his time spent working amidst the natural environment of rural Norway. Here, the focus on the Falkenberg’s marriage is more melodramatic, and, since there’s little trace of autobiographical content, reveals little about the author himself. In the first novel, the narrator had a special connection to Fruen that is largely glossed over here. The attraction or obsession he felt for her is minimized as he seems to be content with playing the role of observer and benevolent servant. The marital power struggle of the Falkenbergs becomes repetitive as they engage in numerous squabbles and attacks.

There is no denying Hamsun’s power as a writer, however, and despite my disappointment in the choice of subject matter I can’t help but admire what he does with it. The ending is very powerful and redeems much of the shortcomings of the earlier portions of the novel. As in the first book, there are some incredibly beautiful passages of poetic prose in which Hamsun paints pictures of nature with a seductive lyricism and an acute eye for detail. Compared to the first book, however, such passages are few and far between, and one wishes there were more of them.

The resolution of this second book feels complete, to the point where I’m not sure how Hamsun is going to make a trilogy out of this, but I’m looking forward to finding out when I read The Last Joy. Though not on a par with his masterpiece Growth of the Soil, Hamsun’s trilogy—thus far, anyway—often displays the same degree of power and beauty that characterizes this exceptional author’s work.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

Pioneering and perplexing
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is considered by many literary scholars to be the first modern detective story. Poe’s detective C. Auguste Dupin, the star of this story, is often cited as an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes and pretty much every other fictional sleuth who followed him. When reading “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” that influence becomes blatantly obvious. The narrator befriends a brilliant criminal scientist and becomes his sidekick. The two share an apartment that also serves as their laboratory and office, where clients and persons of interest come to call. Dupin monitors the crime pages of the newspapers, occasionally offering his services to the police. He frequently astounds his friend with displays of his prodigious reasoning faculties and likes to keep his theories to himself until the big reveal at the end. Since the plot devices established here by Poe pretty much set the template for thousands of detective stories to follow, there is certainly no doubt that the genre owes him a great debt. The amazing thing about “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that, despite the myriad mysteries to which we have been exposed in literature and film over the past 175 years, this one still comes across as an exceptionally smart, surprising, and satisfying specimen of the genre.

That’s not to say Poe got everything right on the first try. Though this story may have laid the foundation for all mystery narratives to come, there were still some kinks that needed working out. Poe opens the story with a boring exposition that likens the art of detection to a game of cards. This is followed by a scene where Dupin rather farfetchedly reads his companion’s mind, then offers a somewhat half-baked explanation of how he performed this feat. Next, as the sleuth and his friend dive into the newspapers, the text takes the form of a series of dry, detail-laden newspaper articles. Considering a brutal murder has been committed, this is all rather surprisingly dull. It isn’t until about halfway through the story, when Dupin visits the crime scene, that things really start to pick up and Poe’s brilliance shines.

In a fourth-floor apartment in the Rue Morgue, two women have been murdered and mutilated. Poe sets up two fundamental questions that need to be answered in order to solve the crime. How did the killer enter and exit the room where the killings took place? And what is the meaning of the mysterious voices that were heard by the neighbors and passers-by? After applying his powers of ratiocination to the case, Dupin unravels these enigmas and reveals his ingenious solution to the puzzling crime. If you’ve managed to make it through the past 175 years without hearing the secret to this story, you will be delightfully shocked when you discover it. Even the 21st-century reader can’t help but admire Poe for his audacity. The brutal violence of the tale is grisly by today’s standards; one can only imagine how startling it must have been to readers of the 1840s.

Though the first half of the story feels a tad bit rickety with age, overall “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” has stood the test of time well and measures up favorably to the vast majority of the detective fiction that has been produced since. Poe only wrote two other Dupin stories, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter.” It is a pity he didn’t pen a few more. If he had seen the potential for a detective fiction franchise that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle capitalized upon, perhaps Dupin, rather than Holmes, would be the iconic household name in literary sleuths.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Grotto of the Dancing Deer and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak, Volume Four

A good volume in a great series
I can’t say enough good things about The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. This is the sixth volume I’ve finished in the series, having previously read and reviewed volumes One, Two, Three, Seven, and Eight. (Rather than reading them in order, I’m just buying whichever volumes pop up as Kindle Daily Deals.) The stories and novellas reprinted in these volumes are frequently excellent, and even the worst selections are usually quite good. The breadth and depth of Simak’s speculative imagination and literary talent is just amazing. Having said all that, I must regretfully admit that Grotto of the Dancing Deer (Volume Four) is my least favorite of the volumes I’ve read thus far.

The title selection is certainly not the problem. “Grotto of the Dancing Deer,” about a scientist studying prehistoric cave paintings, is a brilliant archaeo-sci-fi tale that manages to be both astounding and moving. Another excellent selection, in a more humorous vein, is “Crying Jag,” which features an alien who gets drunk on human sadness. “Hunger Death,” an exciting medical mystery that takes place on Venus, is also a strong entry, as is “Jackpot,” about a band of interplanetary thieves who stumble upon an enormous storehouse of goods that may or may not be priceless. Even this volume’s western novella (Simak wrote more than just science fiction), “The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch,” is one of the author’s better efforts in that genre.

The collection falters on a few fronts, beginning with “Mutiny on Mercury.” Originally published in 1931, editor David W. Wixon surmises that this is probably the first story Simak ever wrote for professional publication. Though it presents an interesting vision of what life might be like at a mining colony on Mercury, it is heavy with the mindless violence of the pulp-fiction era and displays little promise of the author’s mature literary style. Clearly, he had some growing to do when he wrote this one, but thankfully he would later go on to greatness.

About half of the stories in the collection don’t really live up to their full potential. Simak establishes an interesting vision of the future or of another planet, but the story he builds upon that foundation just doesn’t do justice to the premise. The aforementioned “Jackpot,” which gets a little weak towards the end, is the best of such cases. “Day of Truce” would be the worst. In this story, Simak establishes a dystopian, militaristic vision of suburbia, then squanders the social commentary on a MacGyver-esque tactical scenario. “The Civilization Game” likewise tries to make insightful points about humanity’s future, but those points feel a bit overstretched in its wargames plotline. “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a short-short entry that feels like a preliminary sketch for other better Simak stories. “Unsilent Spring,” which Simak cowrote with his son Richard S. Simak, a chemist, is another medical mystery like “Hunger Death,” but it takes place on Earth. Resembling an episode of the television programs Quincy or House, it has a strong theoretical foundation, but once the problem is diagnosed the plot just fizzles to an end.

I’ve come to expect great things from Simak, so I’m being nitpicky here. With the exception of “Mutiny on Mercury” and “Day of Truce,” these are all four-star stories or better. You really can’t go wrong with this series, but if I had to recommend a single volume this would not be it. Volumes One, Two, Seven, and Eight are all closer to perfection than this one.

Stories in this collection
Over the River and Through the Woods 
Grotto of the Dancing Deer 
The Reformation of Hangman’s Gulch
The Civilization Game 
Crying Jag 
Hunger Death 
Mutiny on Mercury 
Day of Truce 
Unsilent Spring

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Deadpan delivery through dangerous times
Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms takes place during World War I and relates the experience of the war through the first-person account of an American serving in the Italian Army. The narrator is an ambulance driver, holds the rank of lieutenant, and supervises a small squad of fellow paramedics serving on the Italian front. This is all revealed slowly over the course of the book, and it isn’t until about halfway through that we learn his name is Frederic Henry. Early in the book, Henry is wounded and spends time in a hospital in Milan, where he meets Catherine Barkley, an English nurse.

A Farewell to Arms is the first novel I’ve read by Hemingway, although I have read some of his short stories. I generally prefer older books of naturalist and romanticist literature, and I was worried he might be too modern for my tastes. To my pleasant surprise, Hemingway uses modernist techniques like stream of consciousness sparingly, only in the most emotionally tense moments, when it is most appropriate. A Farewell to Arms is quite modernist, however, in another respect: its deliberate avoidance of drama. It is almost as if Hemingway goes out of his way to deprive his audience of any satisfying dramatic moments, as if to deliver a thrill or a tear would be a cliché. The narrator relates the most frightening and stressful moments of life like war, birth, and death with a delivery so deadpan he could be reading the phone book. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened—in feelingless monotone. I don’t require a war novel to contain combat scenes, but there ought to be some moments of emotional power that illustrate the effect that war has on human lives, instead of just a series of meals and pointless conversations. At one point, a person is shot and killed (not by the enemy) and the event is merely glossed over in a sentence or two as if nothing ever happened. That should have been a shocking moment in the character’s development, but to shock would be too conventional, so instead it is treated as a commonplace occurrence.

This deliberate eschewing of emotional stimulation is most evident in Henry’s romance with Barkley. They have sex, drink wine, and engage in terrible dialogue which makes her sound stupid. Henry repeatedly says he loves her, but it is difficult for the reader to see why, other than she’s beautiful and available. It is not easy to care for such a thinly drawn character, which makes any scene in which the two are in danger that much more difficult to become emotionally invested in. All bets are off in the final chapter, however, which is far more visceral and moving than the book that precedes it, even though it has nothing to do with the war. Though the outcome is predictable, Henry’s reaction to it is the best writing in the book. If the entire novel were as good as its final chapter, its status as a masterpiece of American literature would be easier to understand.

The novel is based on Hemingway’s own experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy, which would explain why he chose such an unusual perspective on the First World War, rather than something more indicative of the typical Doughboy’s experience. For all its faults, A Farewell to Arms is a pretty good war novel. It is worlds better than John Dos Passos’s boring and overly poetic World War I novel Three Soldiers, yet doesn’t succumb to the sensationalistic macho excesses of Norman Mailer’s World War II epic The Naked and the Dead. To some extent, I don’t see what all the fuss is about, and given Hemingway’s reputation, I doubt this is his best work, but it is good enough to make me want to give For Whom the Bell Tolls a try.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Monseiur Lecoq by Émile Gaboriau

A brilliant work of pre-Sherlock detective fiction
In the genre of detective fiction, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation Sherlock Holmes is considered the benchmark by which all other fictional sleuths are judged. Many are quick to point out, however, that Conan Doyle did not invent the genre. Edgar Allen Poe is often credited as the founder of modern detective fiction with his 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and its detective C. Auguste Dupin cited as an obviously influential forerunner of Holmes. Between Poe and Conan Doyle, however, there was another excellent pioneering detective novelist who has largely faded into obscurity: Émile Gaboriau. In 1869, almost two decades before Holmes made his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, the Frenchman Gaboriau published his brilliant novel Monsieur Lecoq. Incredibly long but never boring, Monsieur Lecoq, like many lengthy novels of its day, was published in two volumes. The first book, subtitled The Inquiry, is a delightfully complex cat-and-mouse game between a police detective and the suspected murderer he hopes to convict. The second volume, subtitled The Honor of the Name, tells the back story of the crime in a dramatic tale of romance and revenge that’s on a par with the epics of Balzac, Victor Hugo, or Alexandre Dumas, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Misérables.

As the novel opens, the Paris police are responding to a disturbance at a tavern in a seedy neighborhood. Upon entering the establishment, they find two dead bodies and one man in the process of dying from a head wound. The apparent killer attempts to escape out the back door but is apprehended. Among the detectives present is a celebrated veteran named Gévrol who settles for a simple explanation to what he perceives as a typical crime. An up-and-coming young detective named Lecoq, looking to prove his mettle, begs to differ with his superior and asks to be given the opportunity to further investigate the crime scene. Upon examining the site, Lecoq discovers footprints in the snow that indicate the presence of additional persons at the scene, possibly accomplices to the crime. Additional evidence shows that this murder was no simple affair. Employing his prodigious faculty of deductive reasoning, Lecoq formulates a theory of the incident that is ridiculed by his coworkers, yet he risks his career to pursue the truth. What follows is an ingenious police procedural which never ceases to baffle and amaze. Every time Lecoq formulates a strategy for solving the case, and the reader thinks he’s got it figured out, the suspect thwarts their efforts with new twists that make the case even more complicated and puzzling.

The second part of the novel explains the events leading up to the mysterious crime by tracing the lives of the characters involved back forty or fifty years to the time of the Bourbon Restoration of 1815. As the ramifications of Revolutionary turmoil play out in a formerly peaceful rural district, fortunes are lost and gained, lives are changed forever, and violence erupts, sparking an animosity between families that lingers for decades. Just as Holmes often disappears for a few chapters in his novels, Lecoq is almost entirely absent from this second volume. Nevertheless, it is an essential component to Gaboriau’s grand scheme. The length and complexity of this sweeping narrative can be frustrating at times, but the patient reader is richly rewarded.

After reading Monsieur Lecoq, it is difficult to understand why Gaboriau is not a household name like Conan Doyle, Poe, or Dumas. If this book is an accurate indication of his body of work, he certainly deserves greater renown. Like The Count of Monte Cristo, Monsieur Lecoq may be too labor intensive for the casual reader, but it definitely deserves to be read by any enthusiast of French literature or detective fiction.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography by Joseph R. McElrath Jr.

A treasure trove for Norris completists
Frank Norris is one of my favorite writers. I’d like to think that I’ve read his complete works, but that’s a tough accomplishment to claim. Norris is best known as a novelist, and when he died at age 32 he had only completed seven novels, one of which (Vandover and the Brute) was published posthumously. Two volumes of short stories, A Deal in Wheat and The Third Circle, were also published shortly after his death, as well as a collection of literary criticism and essays entitled The Responsibilities of the Novelist. In his brief career as a man of letters, however, Norris published literally hundreds of articles, short stories, essays, poems, and plays, scattered among publications like The Overland Monthly, The San Francisco Wave, and American Art and Literary Review. In his 1992 book Frank Norris: A Descriptive Bibliography, noted Norris scholar Joseph R. McElrath Jr. makes sense of Norris’s extensive and diverse body of work.

Prior to this book, the most authoritative bibliography of Norris was probably Kenneth A. Lohf and Eugene P. Sheehy’s Frank Norris: A Bibliography from 1959, which only ran about 100 pages. McElrath’s book, about thrice as long, goes into far greater detail and compiles a much more extensive list of Norris’s works. For the novels, McElrath not only provides the history of each edition but also gives physical descriptions of the books themselves, an invaluable resource for book collectors. McElrath then enumerates the first appearances in various publications of over 300 articles, stories, and other short pieces by Norris. The book also includes a list of over 500 articles that have previously been erroneously attributed to Norris. Finally, in a brief section on works about Norris, McElrath does not attempt a comprehensive list, but only highlights the “principal works” in the field. The exhaustive detail of McElrath’s research is staggering; the book could serve as a model of how bibliographic research should be conducted and presented.

This book was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press as part of their Pittsburgh Series in Bibliography. As far as I can tell, that series has been discontinued and all its volumes are out of print. This sort of detailed bibliographic research used to be a major component of literary scholarship. Look in any university library and you’ll find an entire section—the Z call letters—devoted to it. It seems this sort of research has fallen by the wayside in recent years, however, partly because scholars are more concerned with psychoanalyzing their literary subjects and partly because people just expect to find this sort of information on the Internet. To assume the latter would be a mistake. This type of detailed publication history is a major undertaking, one that only a scholar of McElrath’s caliber can pull off. This book is a valuable, authoritative reference for literary scholars and book collectors, and an interesting and educational volume for avid readers like myself to browse through. Because the conventions of bibliographic notation use a lot of abbreviations, it’s not always the most accessible text. Sometimes it appears as if the entries were written in code, and some knowledge of book manufacturing is required (I work for a publisher). The only fault that I can really find with the book, however, is that it was published back in 1992, so it doesn’t include more recent scholarship like McElrath’s own two-volume The Apprenticeship Writings of Frank Norris, or the biography he cowrote with Jesse S. Crisler, Frank Norris: A Life. Even after twenty-five years, however, this is still the most complete bibliography of Norris’s literary career ever published.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Under the Autumn Star by Knut Hamsun

Reflections on a vagabond life
Under the Autumn Star, a short novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Knut Hamsun, was originally published in 1906 under the Norwegian title of Under Høststjærnen. It is the first volume in a trilogy, the second book of which is entitled A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings. The third and final volume has been published in English as either The Last Joy or Look Back in Happiness. In English-language editions, the first two volumes are often confusingly lumped together into one book entitled Wanderers or The Wanderer.

Under the Autumn Star is narrated by an educated man who comes from a “good family.” As the book opens, he has taken up residence at a rented country cottage. He has spent time in the city and has cultivated sophisticated manners, but he has grown tired of urban life and has decided to live a quieter and more solitary existence. Before long, however, he decides rather than stay put at this seaside retreat, he will wander the countryside as an itinerant handyman, passing himself off as a common laborer and earning his living with his hands. Often in partnership with other wandering workmen he meets along the way, he stops at various farms, looking for work and requesting shelter. While digging wells, cutting wood, or excavating trenches, he and his fellow workmen often have their eyes on the wives, daughters, or servant girls of the landholders that employ them.

As the story develops, we learn the name of this narrator—Knud Pedersen—which also happens to be the birth name of the author, thus indicating that this is an autobiographical work. If indeed this is a faithful representation of Hamsun’s own life then it is an unusually candid one that delves deeply into his psychological state and reveals memories of past love affairs. The book has the wistfully nostalgic feeling of a memoir, sometimes humorous and often touching. Like many of Hamsun’s works, the narrative has a very meandering feeling, seemingly following a course of unconnected observations as the protagonist moves from place to place. Though the subtle plot may create the illusion of haphazardness, Hamsun gradually builds an emotional tension that drives the reader forward to each successive chapter. Though the narrator possesses a youthful wanderlust, he is no longer a youth. There are indications that he may have suffered some psychological trauma in his former life. Despite his penchant for manual labor, he possesses a sensitive soul and takes matters of the heart seriously, perhaps too seriously. Towards the end of the book the narrator exhibits behavior that verges on creepiness, at least by today’s standards, but you nevertheless feel strongly for him because of the uncompromising realism and sensitivity with which Hamsun renders his emotional state.

The English translation by W. W. Worster presents some difficulties. The translator retains Norwegian titles like Fruen (lady, wife, Mrs.) and Frøken (Miss), and the less common praestefruen (minister’s wife, I assume). One awkward aspect of the text is the repeated reference to the “thumbnail” of a smoking pipe that Knud is crafting. Not only is the use of this term in reference to the pipe unclear, it also takes on a bizarre and unexpected meaning later in the book.

The conclusion of Under the Autumn Star is sufficiently resolved for it to stand alone as a complete novel, but it also anticipates the next volume in the trilogy. After having enjoyed this first installment, I look forward to following this wanderer into book two.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx by Max Beer

A decent overview, but not for beginners
Karl Marx
You can’t really read a great deal of literature and history published in the last 150 years without coming across Marxist themes and ideas. Love it or hate it, Marx’s philosophy was a world-changing event, the effects of which still persist to this day. For all his monumental influence, however, American students are unlikely to encounter anything but the most cursory mention of Marx in school, unless you majored in philosophy or economics. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Friedrich Engels is brief and pretty easy to follow, but it seems a rather incomplete expression of Marx’s philosophy, more propaganda than treatise. If you really want to know what Marx is all about, you’ve got to read Capital, which is hardly a book for novices. Unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary to tackle that intimidating tome, I was hoping to find an intelligent primer that would give me an overview of the main components of Marx’s philosophical system. This led me to The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx, a 1921 publication by Austrian Marxist scholar Max Beer.

The contents of the book are definitely more Teaching than Life. Beer devotes few pages to biography and chooses to focus primarily on Marx’s writings. Before he even gets into Marx, however, Beer first provides an introduction to the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Marx was a follower of Hegel, and a grasp of Hegel’s concept of the dialectic is integral to an understanding of Marx’s work. Beer also goes into a lengthy synopsis of the philosophy of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French Socialist philosopher who sparred with Marx over a number of intellectual issues. Though I suppose this overview of Proudhon may be necessary for clarifying the finer points of Marx’s thought, it feels a bit tangential. Likewise, it seems a strange choice by Beer to devote a large portion of the book’s conclusion to the economic theory of David Ricardo, as opposed to handling that earlier in the book. The most bothersome part about these side trips is not so much that they distract from Marx but rather that Beer writes about his subjects as if he assumes you’ve already read their work. In fact, it is difficult to determine who exactly Beer wrote this book for, as it doesn’t read so much like an introduction to Marxist thought as it does a recap, a sort of postgraduate cheat sheet. Beer includes too many extended quotes from Marx’s works in the text when that space would have been better occupied by more summation and explanation.

Thankfully, there is still room for Beer to outline the fundamental concepts of Marxism, as I had hoped. Chapter IV: The Marxian System takes up the entire second half of the book, and for the most part delivered the overview I was hoping for. Again, it is not written for the philosophical rookie, so Beer’s text is not always easy to follow. Some of the more mathematical economic theory, like the calculation of surplus value, is written out in paragraph form, when simple equations or charts would have been much more helpful.

Admittedly, one of the qualities that attracted me to this work is its brevity. The printed edition was only 130 pages long. Once I got into the ebook, however, I realized those must have been some pretty dense pages because this work is by no means a brief, easy read. In some respects, Beer succeeded in answering my questions about Marx, but in others he still left me scratching my head. This work is likely too elementary for real graduate students of philosophy, but I would only recommend it to those lay readers who have a serious interest and considerable experience in reading philosophical texts.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse

The life of the mind, the life of the flesh
Set vaguely in the Middle Ages, Hermann Hesse’s 1930 novel Narcissus and Goldmund tells the story of the friendship between two monks who meet at a monastery. Narcissus, a young teacher at the school, is the model of a pious scholar, with a brilliant mind disposed toward logic and philosophy. Goldmund, a newly arrived student, is also very bright, but bears a reckless, lusty, artistic soul that ultimately leads him to depart the cloister for a life of wanderlust.

The book’s title and promotional copy lead one to believe it will depict a dichotomous conflict between these two characters and their opposing natures—“A raging battle between flesh and spirit,” as the cover of my paperback copy hyperbolically exclaims. Rather than giving equal time to both sides, however, the book is really about ninety percent Goldmund, ten percent Narcissus. The bulk of the narrative follows Goldmund on his travels as a wandering adventurer, and for the most part the reader is happy to accompany him on his journey. His spiritual quest resembles that of the title character of Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, but much more grounded in an earthly realism with which the modern reader can identify. As Hesse presents it, the vagabond life, free from responsibility, is quite seductive. Though Goldmund faces hardships along the way, he finds no shortage of offers of food and lodging, and women are constantly throwing themselves at him.

In other novels, such as Beneath the Wheel and The Glass Bead Game, Hesse paints an equally seductive and rather utopian picture of monastic life—the rewards of study, the joys of quiet contemplation, the brotherhood of scholars—while stressing that physical action and bodily pleasures are also essential to a happy and meaningful life. In this novel, he approaches this antithesis from the other side: Narcissus and his life of the mind are given the short shrift in order to concentrate on the earthly life and bodily pleasures personified by Goldmund. We see Narcissus praying, fasting, and conducting administrative duties at the monastery, but we learn nothing about his scholarly pursuits. He occasionally serves as a foil to Goldmund in friendly debates and brings out hidden qualities in the latter’s personality, inspiring him to thoughtful revelations. If there is a “battle between flesh and spirit” here, it takes place largely within Goldmund himself.

Hesse, with his interest in Jungian archetypes, makes an attempt to position Narcissus and Goldmund as personifications of the masculine and feminine sides of human nature. Goldmund’s wandering spirit and longing for freedom is attributed to his mother, who died when he was young yet still appears to him in visions. To be honest, women aren’t treated all that well in this book. They either serve as sexual partners for Goldmund or are deified as mother goddesses. Female characters have never been Hesse’s strong point; he’s definitely more at home in a monastery full of dudes. Even Hesse himself seems to grow tired of his halfhearted male/female dichotomy and lets it fall by the wayside in favor of a much more successful contrast between the two characters as embodiments of the differing intellectual natures of the artist and the philosopher.

Narcissus and Goldmund is one of Hesse’s best novels. I would put it in his top three, along with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. Though the two monks of this novel may inhabit a time and place long past, their story nevertheless imparts valuable philosophical lessons relevant to modern life. As is often the case with Hesse’s works, this book inspires personal self-reflection and may change the way you look at your own life.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Stories by English Authors

A series overview
Having previously read and reviewed the Stories by American Authors series and the Stories by Foreign Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884 and 1898, respectively, I decided to tackle their 1896 series Stories by English Authors. Once again, Scribner's offers a ten-volume set, each volume of which contains five to seven short stories or novellas. Contrary to the series title, not all the authors are English—some hail from Scotland, Ireland, or Wales. A proper name would have been Stories by British Authors. The ten volumes contain a total of 60 stories by 54 authors (several are listed as Anonymous). As far as I can tell from the free ebook versions, the volumes are not numbered. Each book is subtitled according to the country or region where its stories are set. I have previously reviewed all ten volumes individually here at Old Books by Dead Guys, in the following order. Click on the links below to read the complete reviews.

Stories by English Authors: England
Stories by English Authors: London
Stories by English Authors: Ireland
Stories by English Authors: Scotland
Stories by English Authors: Germany, and Northern Europe
Stories by English Authors: The Sea
Stories by English Authors: Africa
Stories by English Authors: France
Stories by English Authors: Italy
Stories by English Authors: The Orient

In many cases, the stories feature English protagonists in the various locales, though sometimes the authors write stories with “native" characters, in an attempt to illustrate the local customs and character of the setting in question. Sometimes the stories in this latter category take the form of harmless folktales, but often they can come across as condescending or racist towards the cultures they’re depicting. The worst volume in the series is The Orient, which manages to offend half the peoples of the Eastern Hemisphere. The Ireland volume, though written entirely by Irish writers, paints a dismal picture of the Emerald Isle as a land of drinking, fighting rednecks. Surprisingly, the Africa volume is one of the better books in the series, because it mostly ignores Africans altogether and focuses more on English adventurers launching expeditions into the Dark Continent. The best volume of the ten is the one on Germany, and Northern Europe, largely due to superb entries by Robert Louis Stevenson and Ouida.

These books are in the public domain and can be read online and downloaded for free at various sources, including Amazon and Project Gutenberg. I read the Stories by Foreign Authors series first and was very impressed by it. It contains a lot of great stories by some of the most renowned writers in 19th-century European fiction, as well as other lesser-known authors that prove to be pleasant surprises. Following that with the Stories by American Authors series was a big disappointment. Most of the authors included there have since rightfully faded into obscurity, and their offerings are mostly mediocre. Overall, the Stories by English Authors series proved to be even slightly worse than the American series, and nowhere near the quality of the Foreign series. Like its American counterpart, the English series is also heavy on the obscure and the mediocre, though it is occasionally redeemed by the presence of a heavy hitter like Stevenson, Ouida, Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or H. Rider Haggard. As often as not, however, the big name authors deliver lackluster selections, as is the case with Anthony Trollope, Rudyard Kipling, Wilkie Collins, and others.

I highlight the best stories in the series below, as I have done with the American and Foreign series. I tried for a top ten list, but could only come up with nine, and that was being charitable. I have rated each of these stories from five to four stars, and they are listed in descending order of merit.

“Markheim” by Robert Louis Stevenson
from Stories by English Authors: Germany, and Northern Europe
On Christmas night, a lone customer enters an antique dealer’s shop with robbery and murder on his mind. Reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, Stevens focuses on the psychological state of the killer. The story takes a very unexpected turn and becomes a riveting philosophical thriller.

“A Dog of Flanders” by Ouida
from Stories by English Authors: Germany, and Northern Europe
A boy and his grandfather, poor as beggars but happy, live in a village outside Antwerp. One day they find an injured dog who becomes the boy’s inseparable friend. A great story, though melodramatic at times. Longer than it needs to be, but the ending is worth it.

“A Leaf in the Storm” by Ouida
from Stories by English Authors: France
In a picturesque village on the banks of the Seine, a 92-year-old woman lives a peaceful life with her grandson. Life is good until the reality of the Franco-Prussian War descends upon their sleepy hamlet. Depressing, but reminiscent of Emile Zola with its brutal realism.

“The Four-Fifteen Express” by Amelia B. Edwards
from Stories by English Authors: England
On a train ride to his friend’s country estate, a man meets a mutual acquaintance of his host. When discussing the encounter with his friend, however, he discovers that the mysterious passenger has been on the lam for embezzlement. The two friends investigate, and a good mystery story ensues.

“Long Odds” by H. Rider Haggard
from Stories by English Authors: Africa
Aging adventurer Allan Quartermain tells the story of how a family of lions killed his oxen, and how he hunted them down for retribution. A fun and exciting hunting story with good descriptive passages and just enough local color.

“An Idyl of London” by Beatrice Harraden
from Stories by English Authors: London
Two art students, an old man and a young woman, form an unlikely friendship while copying paintings at the National Gallery of Art. The ending is handled somewhat clumsily, but overall the story is quite touching.

“Ghamba” by William Charles Scully
from Stories by English Authors: Africa
A young white man in South Africa strikes up a friendship with a rather creepy old native named Ghamba, who tells his new friend about a criminal hiding out in a cave in the mountains. Turns into a pretty good and violently fun pulp fiction tale.

“Quarantine Island” by Sir Walter Besant
from Stories by English Authors: The Sea
Spurned by his beloved, a young doctor volunteers to serve on an isolated island where ship passengers are quarantined before being allowed on the mainland. It follows a familiar formula, but the details are well written.

“King Bemba’s Point” by J. Landers
from Stories by English Authors: Africa
A young Englishman goes to work as assistant to the factor at a southeast African trading post. When a visitor arrives from England the assistant suspects that he and the boss share a mysterious prior history. Predictable, but otherwise well executed.

That’s it for Scribner’s short story series. Next, I am moving on to the three-volume set International Short Stories, published by P. F. Collier & Son in 1910. Its three books focus on American, English, and French fiction.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Ethics by Baruch Spinoza

The toughest book you’ll ever love
Ethics by Baruch Spinoza (a.k.a. Benedict de Spinoza) was originally published in 1677 under the Latin title of Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata. Though the title highlights Spinoza’s ethical philosophy, the scope of the book is much broader. Before he ever gets around to discussing how people should conduct themselves, he first examines in great detail the nature of God, the substance of matter, and the processes of human thought and emotion. One thing that separates Ethics from just about any other philosophical text you’re likely to come across is that Spinoza makes his argument in the form of a mathematical proof, similar to the style of Euclid’s The Elements. He begins each of the book’s five parts by defining terms. He then postulates several fundamental axioms. From these axioms, he proceeds to make a series of propositions, each of which builds upon the material that came before. He supports each proposition with explanatory commentary, corollaries, and notes.

The result of this approach is a very comprehensive and coherent one-volume philosophical system of how the universe works. By coherent I mean that its pieces cohere firmly and logically together; I definitely don’t mean easy to read. Never has a book been so orderly structured yet so confusing. Each sentence Spinoza writes is crafted in a circuitous syntax that is quite frustrating to decipher. He pens each statement with such precision that at times its like reading computer code. Yet when kernels of wisdom do emerge from this fog of verbiage the reader reaps the rewards of pure genius. It’s not always a fun read, but it is a work that deserves deep concentration and contemplation. Though the Euclidean structure of the book makes for labor intensive reading, you’ll end up wishing more philosophers would have adopted this logical structure and stated their ideas so systematically.

Spinoza begins by discussing the substance of which the universe is comprised. While dualists like Plato and Descartes posited that the universe consists of two substances, matter and spirit, Spinoza proposes a monism by which matter and mind are one and the same substance. Since only one substance exists, God is also comprised of it, and since God is infinite, the universe (or Nature) is God. Thus, from the philosophy of monism springs the religion of pantheism. In Spinoza’s view, everything is divine. His deity is not an anthropomorphic god, nor does he believe in ideal definitions of good and evil. Spinoza maintains a strictly deterministic view of the universe in which every action leads back to the ultimate cause, the eternal God. Fate is predetermined and free will is an illusion. Spinoza goes to great lengths to explain how human thoughts and emotions are the result of natural processes, even so far as to define a tedious laundry list of human emotions and their causes. His ethics are very similar to those of the ancient Stoics. Man has no control over what befalls him, but he can manage his emotions with rational thought and cultivate happiness by contemplating God and resigning himself to his natural destiny. Despite his continual use of the G-word, Spinoza’s pantheism is about as near as you can get to atheism without calling it as such. The Ethics may be the closest thing to a bible for freethinkers that has ever been produced. Thanks to its Euclidean structure, you can even quote it chapter and verse.

The Wordsworth Classics series has a beautifully typeset paperback edition of the Ethics, with a revised version of the 1883 translation by W. H. White. However, the translation by R. H. M. Elwes (also 1883), found in the free ebook edition from Project Gutenberg, is a little easier to understand. For difficult passages, I found myself going back and forth between the two.
If you like this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, September 4, 2017

City by Clifford D. Simak

An epic saga of men, dogs, and robots
City is likely the best-known and most highly regarded work by science fiction author Clifford D. Simak (though his novel Way Station may also be a contender). Published in 1952, City is composed of eight short stories previously published in sci-fi magazines from 1944 to 1951. For the novel, Simak added additional material to tie the tales together, including brief introductions to each story written by an editor in some far-distant future. In 1973, Simak also added an epilog. Though the commentary-from-the-future device has been used in previous science fiction novels, here Simak adds his own unique twist to the idea: in City, the editor is a dog.

The philosophical question underlying City is what would happen if mankind had the benefit of communicating with another intelligent species? How would this help or hinder our development? Man first attempts to form a beneficial partnership with Martians, but for reasons better left unsaid here, that proves unsuccessful. Then, a scientist named Bruce Webster decides to enhance the communication abilities of dogs so they can more intelligently interact with humans. This move has unseen ramifications that play out for tens of thousands of years into the future. City chronicles this future history of life on Earth, with recurring appearances by members of the Webster family, their robot Jenkins, and the descendants of those first experimental dogs.

At first it seems the talking, literate canines merely serve the purpose of comic relief, but as you become more involved with the stories, the dogs become more integral to the narrative, and it becomes clear that they serve a higher function. The dogs are presented in contrast to mankind, to highlight the qualities inherent or lacking in human nature. This creates a disturbing disjunction between the cute humor that arises from talking animals and the serious points Simak makes about the future of the human race. Jenkins, the robot, presents a similar quandary, as he at times is depicted as possessing perhaps more humanity than the humans he serves.

I had previously encountered two of these stories, “City” and “Census,” in The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak series. I thought these stories were great on their own, but here in City they become part of something grander and much more remarkable­—an epic, sweeping speculative vision of the ultimate fate of mankind and the planet we live on. Though the parts may originally have been published separately, Simak clearly conceived them as one cohesive whole. Each piece is intricately linked to those that precede and follow it. The one aspect of the book that I didn’t care for all that much is the dog editor’s brief introductions to each chapter. They don’t do much to enhance the narrative, and they get annoyingly repetitive as the fictional commentator repeatedly wonders whether men ever existed, or if they are merely a myth. The eight stories and epilogue alone would have worked just fine without these interludes. I would argue that the canine editing hurts the narrative more than it helps.

This may be the book that made Simak famous, but if you’ve never read his writing before, City is a challenging work to start with. Be prepared for weirdness, and open your mind to Simak’s grand plan. This epic saga of the intertwining destinies of men, dogs, mutants, robots, extraterrestrials, and others may come across as exceedingly bizarre at first, yet Simak never betrays the unique logic of his fictional universe. What’s more, as is often the case with his work, Simak endows this sci-fi novel with an underlying humanity that elevates it into the realm of great literature.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The House on the Cliff by Franklin W. Dixon

An exciting improvement over the first book
I read the Hardy Boys mysteries when I was younger, and I’m now reading them with my son. We were both relatively unimpressed with The Tower Treasure, the first book in the series of boy-detective novels by author Franklin W. Dixon. To my surprise, however, my son wanted to read more, so we moved on to book two, The House on the Cliff. This mystery novel was originally published in 1927, but like many of the books in the series it was significantly revised in 1959 by Harriet Adams, an editor working on behalf of the publisher who owned the rights to the books. I’m happy to report, and I think my son would agree, that The House on the Cliff is much more entertaining and exciting than the volume that preceded it.

Smugglers have been operating in the coastal waters near the town of Bayport, and the police and Coast Guard have asked for internationally renowned detective Fenton Hardy’s help on the case. He in turn enlists his sons Frank and Joe and their buddies from high school to help him out with some of the legwork. The boys are assigned to watch the waters from a cliff that overlooks the bay. This vantage point is located on the grounds of the old Pollitt place, a spooky mansion sitting in seaside seclusion. Through the lens of their telescope, the boys spot suspicious activity taking place in the bay. Could it be the smugglers? Then suddenly, they hear strange noises coming from the Pollitt house. Fearing someone might be in danger within, they decide to enter the mansion and investigate.

There isn’t a lot of detective work here in the sense of piecing clues together to solve a puzzle, but there is a lot of cops-and-robbers-style scenes of chase, capture, and escape. The Hardy Boys follow the bad guys into secret caverns and hidden passageways. Occasionally guns are drawn and fists are thrown, but the violence is kept at a minimum for young audiences. As always, the Hardy Boys are held up as examples of right behavior and moral fortitude. The illustrations always show them wearing sweaters and ties—even when they’ve supposedly just been swimming!—while the villains wear trashy open-collared shirts and short sleeves. Still, even though the smugglers speak in sailor slang, there’s less of the classism here that was so blatant in The Tower Treasure. The criminals are depicted as men behaving badly but not incapable of moral redemption.

My son, of elementary school age, really enjoyed the colorful characters, like the helpful informant Pretzel Pete and the evil king of the smugglers Snattman. Almost every chapter in the book ends on a cliffhanger, so we were always looking forward to what would happen next. The House on the Cliff is not a particularly creative or intelligent mystery, but it’s a good family-friendly adventure novel that’s still got enough thrills for young boys to enjoy. After reading this episode, my son and I are looking forward to starting book three, The Secret of the Old Mill.