Archives for category: Novels

The recent ITV reënactment (adaptation) of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair looks really good, but it seems unfortunate that the character Sambo — described as badly legged and black on the first page of the novel — is here a well-shaped, stately black African (played by a British actor), not an Indian, and is called “Sam.”

Racial, racism, stereotypes, blah blah blah. What would Thackeray make of P.C.?

The show is on Amazon Prime, but the book is everywhere. I have in my hand a very nice Könemann two-volume, boxed edition.

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The Sambo I knew as a kid.

What is meant by the phrase “there is no god but the unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is its prophet”?

. . . as answered on Quora. . . .

This is a taunt from the pages of Jack London’s great novel Martin Eden, 13th chapter:

Martin had heard Herbert Spencer quoted several times in the park, but one afternoon a disciple of Spencer’s appeared, a seedy tramp with a dirty coat buttoned tightly at the throat to conceal the absence of a shirt. Battle royal was waged, amid the smoking of many cigarettes and the expectoration of much tobacco-juice, wherein the tramp successfully held his own, even when a socialist workman sneered, “There is no god but the Unknowable, and Herbert Spencer is his prophet.” Martin was puzzled as to what the discussion was about, but when he rode on to the library he carried with him a new-born interest in Herbert Spencer, and because of the frequency with which the tramp had mentioned “First Principles,” Martin drew out that volume.

So the great discovery began. Once before he had tried Spencer, and choosing the “Principles of Psychology” to begin with, he had failed as abjectly as he had failed with Madam Blavatsky. There had been no understanding the book, and he had returned it unread. But this night, after algebra and physics, and an attempt at a sonnet, he got into bed and opened “First Principles.” Morning found him still reading. It was impossible for him to sleep. Nor did he write that day. He lay on the bed till his body grew tired, when he tried the hard floor, reading on his back, the book held in the air above him, or changing from side to side. He slept that night, and did his writing next morning, and then the book tempted him and he fell, reading all afternoon, oblivious to everything and oblivious to the fact that that was the afternoon Ruth gave to him. His first consciousness of the immediate world about him was when Bernard Higginbotham jerked open the door and demanded to know if he thought they were running a restaurant.

Martin Eden had been mastered by curiosity all his days. He wanted to know, and it was this desire that had sent him adventuring over the world. But he was now learning from Spencer that he never had known, and that he never could have known had he continued his sailing and wandering forever. He had merely skimmed over the surface of things, observing detached phenomena, accumulating fragments of facts, making superficial little generalizations—and all and everything quite unrelated in a capricious and disorderly world of whim and chance. The mechanism of the flight of birds he had watched and reasoned about with understanding; but it had never entered his head to try to explain the process whereby birds, as organic flying mechanisms, had been developed. He had never dreamed there was such a process. That birds should have come to be, was unguessed. They always had been. They just happened.

Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) was a Victorian Era polymath, remembered for

  • his early development of evolutionary theory — “The Development Hypothesis” (1852), “A Theory of Population, deduced from the General Law of Animal Fertility” (1852), Principles of Psychology (first edition, 1855) and “Progress: Its Law and Cause” (1857);
  • his political liberalism — in Social Statics (1851), Justice (1891, Part IV of Principles of Ethics) and The Man versus the State (1884), all celebrated only by libertarians, today;
  • his pioneering of sociology — Study of Sociology (1878), Descriptive Sociology(19 vols., 1873–1934), and Principles of Sociology (1876–1896 );
  • coining the term “survival of the fittest” after hearing Charles Darwin’s initial presentation of “natural selection,” and as introduced formally in Principles of Biology (1864).

But Spencer first made his name as a metaphysician and religious philosopher. His main concept was “the Unknowable,” as indicated in the quip in above. It received its main exposition in the first half of First Principles (1860). Spencer was trying to show the limits of human knowledge, but also address an understanding of what he regarded as the underlying foundation to all existence, which, he argued, we know of but cannot actually know. Spencer believed that awe and reverence for this “Unknowable” is the remaining — “ultimate” — religious idea, after science had done its work.

The best treatment of this peculiar element to his philosophy is by George Santayana, in his Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford in 1923, “The Unknowable.” I highly recommend this beautiful and profound essay, to every thinking person — see Obiter Scripta (1936), but I first came across it in Clifton Fadiman’s Reading I’ve Liked (1945).

Spencer’s agnostic concept of “The Unknowable” was once all the rage. Victorian scientists such as John Tyndall, rapidly losing their faith, grabbed at it as if a lifeline in deep ocean. Since then, however, it has dropped out of circulation. I did once hear it discussed in the 1990s’ TV dramedy Northern Exposure, though.

So why the sneering remark? It apes the famous Islamic credo, sure. But it was from a socialist character. Herbert Spencer was deeply anti-socialist. No more need be said.

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Herbert Spencer

As you can see by the image of my Goodreads review, it took me a while to finish reading it. But since there is no story, no plot, it doesn’t much matter. Little “violence” is done by intermittent reading, as is also the case with Impressions of Theophrastus Such and The Book of Disquiet.

In my reading, though, this long span of occasional picking up and putting down of the book was the result, mainly, of repeatedly losing track of it. My library is too large, my reading spots too numerous, and my office is too messy: it is easy to lose track of books. There was no plan — or even economizing of effort — going on in my seemingly studied inattention.

Gissing’s reflections on the British national spirit.
Gissing was not very “pro-science.”
Back cover to the edition I read.
This reminds me of Pessoa’s reflections.

Since it is mainly just a series of reflections it is not an autobiography. So what is this genre? Belles lettres, I think.

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Angus Wilson was a second-tier literary figure of post-war Britain. Does anyone read him any longer? I know that I have not. But I do own four of his novels. And the openings are quite good:

This opening of The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot strikes me as perfect. We are going to get a good character study by a competent observer of the social world. The book is my age. I really should read it.

Perhaps only because I recognized the fine writing of the first novel, above, I bought this second, on a whim. I did not carefully read this first page in the book store. Buying Late Call was an impulse purchase. But his 1964 novel’s first page is unexceptionable, indeed worthy of more attention than I have given it. It is a pity that Angus Wilson just looms in my imagination as an less as a vital author and more as Terra incognita.

Old Men at the Zoo (1961) is one of his most popular books, from what I have so far gathered, and I bought the Granada/Panther paperback with assurance from John Wain on the front cover — the back cover blurbs being most unhelpful. Wilson’s cautionary note up front is fairly amusing:

The fourth book of his in my library is the oldest, from 1956 (though this is a second edition), and the paper cover of my copy is creased and worn. Somebody almost certainly read it, years ago.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was written long before the very concept “Anglo-Saxon” was considered racist, as it is today amongst the college crowd and cognitive elite in America, but not before the notion conveyed some comic embarrassment and a whiff of the absurd. The main character appears to be “depressed”:

Now, Angus Wilson usually suffers from the inevitable comparison with Kingsley Amis, whose comic novels usually place him above the rest of the Angry Young Men set. Lucky Jim (1954), which I have read three times, at least, is a perfect confection. In my Twenties I read a whole shelf of Amis books, including Take a Girl Like You (1960) and One Fat Englishman (1963) and even The Alteration (1976). But I haven’t read Amis’s fiction in years, and what I have in my shelves includes several I haven’t read past the first chapter.

Indeed, I have read only two of these: Jake’s Thing (1979) and The Green Man (1969). The former is hilarious and first rate while the latter is a surprisingly good ghost story, with a transcendent aspect (God makes a showing).

Jake’s Thing benefits from being a comedy of impotence and growing old — built-in hilarity — but more substantive is the satire on modern faddish therapeutics. I remember this being one of Amis’s very best novels.

But I probably enjoyed The Green Man more. It is the Amis book I am most likely to re-read.

Until taking this snap of the first page, I may never have cracked open The Crime of the Century (1975). It does not really move me to read on.

I tried to read The Russian Girl (1992) just this last winter, but the writing struck me as bad; looking at it again, now, and I am mystified as to why I leveled such a strong negative judgment against it.

Difficulties With Girls (1988), on the other hand, entices. It is probably the next Amis I will read. But I don’t think it has much of a reputation. Which is probably why I have neglected it so far.

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Karl Marlantes, an all-too-typical comsymp.

Deep River is a novel about the valley over the hill from where I live. My mother grew up in that valley. She and my father built their first home in the valley head. My older siblings spent the early years of their lives there. I have fond memories, for the most part, of that shadowy place not far from home.

The novel is said to be quite good, and its author, Karl Marlantes, a genius.

He does not seem like one.

Not on the basis of the Seattle Times article about the novel, anyway. I got stuck on something he said, a comment about Communism. I raise more than a mere single eyebrow:

Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a communist, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear.

Oh, is that what we do? Gin up the fear. How thoughtless of us! How bigoted!

Replace one word in his defense of his grandma, though, and would anyone still consider his defense of his grandmother’s radicalism reasonable?

Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a Nazi, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear.

Karl Marlantes would not write that. He knows that National Socialism was evil. And had one of his relatives been a Nazi who worked as “a political agitator” stirring up “a heap of trouble” in trying to organize for a cause he approved of — like, I bet, a welfare state (which Nazi Germany did indeed establish) — he would rightly be too squeamish to brush aside our abhorrence of the ideology.

But it is worse than that. Communists killed over 100 million of their fellow citizens last century. Hitler, an utterly evil dictator, was a slacker compared to Stalin and Mao.

Oh, and Hitler praised Karl Marx’s economic analysis, too. Leftists cannot hide behind unhistorical platitudes of “anti-fascism” and a witless love for “the left.” The bodies pile up higher the further left you push. And even the “anarchist-communists”/“communist-anarchists” of bygone years have something to answer for, because they promoted ideas that led to revolution that in turn led to tyranny and mass slaughter.

And it is not as if the Wobblies, whom Marlantes’ character Aino — based on his grandmother — “agitated” for, were all sweetness and light. They engaged in quite a number of riots, and several forms of terrorism. Along with the bomb-throwing (and bomb-throwing adjacent) anarchists, they understandably got caught in the anti-terrorist backlash in the early 20th century, and were suppressed.

Marlantes appears to be a typical “progressive” moral moron. He carries on a long leftist tradition of taking sides in the Pick Your Tyranny game that has played for nearly a century. Fascism is bad; communism is . . . well, “communists mean well.”

I am not sure I have ever encountered a leftist willing to plumb the depths of the Totalitarian Ideology Problem, willing to not Pick Your Tyranny. They exist, sure. But once one really comes to grips with the problem, one tends to cease being a leftist.

Leftism is a culturally acceptable Yog-Sothothery, an open flirtation with outrageous moral horror. It is a cult. It corrupts minds. And it is very widespread among moderately bright artistic types. Like Karl Marlantes.


Oh, and for the record: my grandfather hated the Wobblies. Not all Finns were commies.

There were Red Finns, sure, but there were about an equal number of Church Finns — “Whites” — at least in America. My education in politics did not rest upon this divide, but it did haunt the back of my mind. I grew up knowing about the tragedy of “Karelian Fever.” I also knew of the terror of living under Stalin. Socialism of any kind was always a bit suspect.

What made me so lucky, when so many of my culturally “left” artists succumbed? Well, much older relatives of mine, who were Reds, knew it all too well. And told their story. Which was repeated.

Family lore about my great uncle and aunt was this: early in the mad “experiment” of Communism, they had moved, as newlyweds, to the USSR — and within six months became almost afraid of each other. Political correctness under a totalitarian state is one of terror, not mere ill manners and inconvenience. They fled, lucky to escape.

Finnish-Americans who will not honestly confront their history with communist evil don’t do anyone any good.

I will wait to read Marlantes’ latest novel, I think, perhaps pick it up used. Call it my personal boycott of apologists for totalitarianism, “politically correct” fools who make light of mass murder, regimentation, and the philosophy of pushiness and plunder.

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echo of a Goodreads review (2/14/2019)

Originally publishd as Lady Killer.

It seems apt to have finished reading this novel as Valentine’s Day begins in the wee hours. For this is not romantic comedy, it is romantic noir.

I am not really an avid reader of “pulp fiction,” though I did recently read an early Jack Vance crime novel — The Flesh Mask, originally published under the pseudonymous signal “Peter Held.” Oh, and I am a Charles Willeford enthusiast, favorite novels including his tough guy/Stirnerite spins on Ayn Rand themes, Burnt Orange Heresy, Cockfighter, and The Woman Chaser. I would not be surprised to learn that Willeford studied not only Woodford’s writing manuals, but also pulp novels such as this one, originally called Lady Killer and published under a pseudonym (Howard Kennedy) in the 1930s, the decade in which he produced his largest fictional output.

This book is less a novel of ideas than the author’s Illegitimate and Unmoral, which I have reviewed here; it is much more like Willeford’s work. It is less talky, and does not elaborate Woodford’s “selfism”; it is more along the lines of a standard love triangle — except that Woodford’s method is more aptly termed a “love tangle.” Here we have a revenge scenario worked out. The plan fails, and, after a few twists and a murder, we have a happy ending. As usually with Woodford, the opening chapter is brilliant, while the happy ending will probably please today’s readers least.

I have a theory about the value of this author’s fiction. Woodford considered his work in this field — which he called “sex novels” — to be junk. He thought of himself a manipulator of readers for whom he had little respect. (But he showed much more disrespect for publishers. I recommend his Loud Literary Lamas of New York as a fun book-length rant against his bêtes noir. Woodford made his living as a self-publisher, and recommended to would-be authors that very publishing method — though he had to give it up in his final decade.) The nature of his “sex writing” method was the ramping-up of sexual excitement. It worked back in his day, when there were multiple taboos against “prurience” in speech and in literature. And Woodford found the perfect way to navigate through the Comstockian minefield: by never mentioning a sex organ, in either technical or vulgar wording, euphemistic or dysphemistic. This book is no exception. But nowadays all that sexual frustration has dissipated. Vanished. Nothing sexual is hidden from us, free on the Internet — even Network TV is far, far more explicit than Woodford was. So we are left with the strength of his prose, the ingenuity of his characterization and plots, and the charm of his cynicism.

It is rather like Greek statuary: their true greatness was revealed eons later, and in no small part because the original gaudy painting had worn off. The sexual repression and titillation constitute the ancient Greeks’ paint.

This is one of his better efforts. I am pretty sure he despised it, or at least pretended to. But I don’t. I think it has merit. I enjoyed it, and studied how it was constructed. Many a literary “masterpiece” of his era is no longer worth reading. This “trash” is.

Here is an oddity, though. Twice in the novel he used the word “strengthy.” I had never encountered that word before. Why not, simply, “strong”? I am pretty sure Woodford did not choose the word lightly. And I was almost taken aback at discovering that it was a once-common word. I am a bit surprised I had not noticed it before. Checking Google’s Ngram viewer, I see it has dropped out of the language. The word’s heyday was the 1840s, a century before this paperback hit the racks.

There is an advertisement for his line of books from “The Woodford Press” — including two of the novels I mentioned above — and was undoubtedly a provision Woodford insisted upon adding to The Hard-Boiled Virgin’s publishing contract.

The title of this novel is, of course, classic — and was cribbed from Frances Newman’s modernist monstrosity made infamous in the Twenties.

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My copy has seen better days.

Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747), is usually just referred to solely by the name of the protagonist, Zadig. It is the first of the great French writer’s “romances” in my big volume of Voltaire stories, and the first I have read in 40 years. It is, all in all, an excellent tale, echoing the manner of the Arabian Nights, filled with amusing episodes and light philosophical insights:

A warm dispute arose on one of Zoroaster’s laws, which forbids the eating of a griffin.

“Why,” said some of them, “prohibit the eating of a griffin if there is no such animal in nature?”

“There must necessarily be such an animal,” said the others, “since Zoroaster forbids us to eat it.”

Zadig would fain have reconciled them by saying:

“If there are no griffins, we cannot possibly eat them; and thus either way we shall honor Zoroaster.”

No griffins were harmed in my reading of Zadig, for none appear. And neither does the Basilisk, which enters the story later on, but only as hearsay. This is not a work of high fantasy . . . or low.

C6D18A31-189B-4E43-975F-36EDC13D34C9I admit, I may be ambivalent about the story’s moral, but the character of the eponymous protagonist is heroic in his quests and honest in his struggle to meet his outrageous challenges in a world filled with pain and frustration, not least being the betrayals and stupidities of our fellow men . . . all the while trying to puzzle out the nature of Fate. Its inspiration never flags.

It is worth mentioning the full title as given in the edition I read: Zadig, or Fate. Destiny is the main theme, and Voltaire’s deism shows in a revelation towards the end, with an angel offering the great secret . . . pertaining to why a world with so much suffering exists. This explanation is very interesting. Today’s bewitched youngsters might be amused to learn that Diversity Is a Sign not of Our Strength . . . but of the Creator’s.

Note: This is not a novel. Voltaire tells his story in the manner of ancient tall tales, not in the modern novelistic style with its characteristic attention to moment, aiming to induce the reader into the soul of the protagonist, whether hero, victim or anti-hero. There is no “interiority” here. Do not read it expecting anything like a modern thriller, and most especially not like a classic novel such as Silas Marner and Fathers and Sons. This is a droll tale in the olden style, but with Voltaire’s wit woven in to leaven the lump.

I highly recommend Zadig. Every literate person should be familiar with this form of fiction. And what is that form, exactly? I believe it would properly be called an “anatomy,” to use the terminology of Northrop Frye, taken from Robert Burton. The ancient term is Menippean satire. Some of my favorite writers engage in this genre: Lucian, Denis Diderot, Aldous Huxley, and James Branch Cabell. But I have of course read a lot more of the standard novel form than of this genre. Still, it is the case that, as I grow old, and soak up our civilization’s scattered stores of wisdom — wringing them out, periodically, in the course of my many follies and foibles — I find my taste for reveling in the arts of feeling, of streams of consciousness and flows of tropisms, wane.

What waxes, instead, are the dazzling philosophical perspectives of Lucian and Cabell. And Voltaire.

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Lin-Carter-Down-to-a-Sunless-Sea

Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

View all my reviews

FLUENCY CONFLUENCE BOOK ONE

Is not the “No Style” style, in which most fiction is written, these days, what has been left us after the “keep it simple” demands of editors, publishers, and the influence of writers such as Hemingway, Orwell, and Camus?

And does that not leave us with works of fiction that read like film treatments more than literary endeavors?

Maybe the answer to the second question is a No, but sometimes I wonder whether it be better answered with a Yes. Hence my query.

Before 1950, the No Style style (hereinafter “NSs”) was not prevalent, even with popular fiction. F. Marion Crawford, for instance, had a “literary style” that attempted some subtlety in the prose, on a sentence by sentence basis (first novel, 1882; last, 1910). Jack Woodford, the “sex novelist” whose modus was never to mention a body part of an, um, intimate nature, sported sentences and paragraphs that can run circles around most of today’s bestselling authors (heyday, ’30s and ’40s). Even the initial run of the Hardy Boys (1927-1947) could boast more individuality in the literary presentation than nine tenths of what we get today.

Still, the NSs makes for easy and fun reading. As in the science fiction novel I opened up today (see cover, above).

Indeed, you can see the contrast in sf, where even today you are more likely to come across interesting writing qua writing than in most other genres.

Philip K. Dick wrote in the NSs, but Jack Vance certainly did not. Robert Heinlein wrote in the NSs, except in the prose failure (but story success) of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Alfred Bester was definitely not an NSs practitioner; A.E. van Vogt should have wished he had been. Terry Bisson writes beautifully, but close to NSs; Gene Wolfe is as close to a great literary artist the genre has produced, and writes far from the all-too-standard NSs pop fiction prejudice — and is not very popular because of it. I’ve read a lot of NSs authors. But my favorites tend to be those who did not and do not write quite that simply:

  • Ray Bradbury
  • Thomas M. Disch
  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harlan Ellison
  • Brian Aldiss
  • George Alec Effinger
  • Lucius Shepherd
  • J. G. Ballard

Any thoughts?

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IMG_4141If you have not read the work of James Branch Cabell, where would you start? I began with The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion, when I was 17. I have no regrets. But I do not think there is any question about the ideal Cabell starter: The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome, from The Witch Woman (1948).*

But after that, what?

Well, it depends.

I have a go at a decision tree — hey, it branches! — to aid the curious reader:

The James Branch Cabell Oeuvre 

* The first printing of the story was as a large, stand-alone illustrated book published by the John Day Company in 1926. It is a lovely edition, but the final printing in The Witch Woman was the final revision of the story, and it is the best. Read that version.