The Last Days of Night.

Graham Moore won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2015 for his work on The Imitation Game, particularly impressive for a first-time screenwriter with just that and one novel under his belt at the time. His second novel, The Last Days of Night, came out last August and just appeared in paperback this spring, and is about as good a work of popular, contemporary fiction as I’ve come across.

Moore takes the term historical novel to a new extreme here, creating a coherent narrative around the War of Currents of the late 1800s – the public dispute over whether the nation’s power grid should run on direct current, favored by Thomas Edison, or alternating current, favored by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse – by relying on the historical record as much as possible for descriptions of characters, scenes, and even dialogue. This type of novel typically makes me uncomfortable because it potentially puts words and thoughts in the mouths of real-life personages, potentially coloring or distorting our impressions of them; Moore includes an appendix explaining source materials for many of the depictions in the book, even explaining the origins of some of the dialogue, and also delineating which events and timelines in the book are real and which he created or rearranged to fit the narrative. I’ve read “non-fiction” books that played faster and looser with the truth than Moore does here in his work of fiction.

The War of Currents was kind of a big deal, and a lot more public than you’d expect a scientific debate to be, largely because the two figures at the center of it, Edison and Westinghouse, were both famous and powerful at the time – Edison the revered inventor and showman, Westinghouse the successful businessman and an inventor in his own right, the two embroiled in a public dispute over whether DC or AC was the safer choice for the nation’s emerging electrical grid. (AC was the inarguably superior technology, and eventually won out, but not necessarily for the ‘right’ reasons.) Moore wraps this battle, including the bizarre entrance of one Harold Brown, inventor of the electric chair, into the debate, in the larger one over who really invented the incandescent light bulb, spicing things up a little bit with some fictional details like the firebombing of Tesla’s laboratory and a hostile takeover of Edison’s company.

Told from the perspective of Paul Cravath, a young attorney who handled Westinghouse’s side of the various lawsuits back and forth between him and Edison and later founded the Council on Foreign Relations, The Last Days of Night manages to turn what could have been dry history into a suspenseful, fast-paced novel (aided by lots of short chapters) populated by well-rounded characters. Edison’s depiction might be a little too on the nose, but Westinghouse, Cravath, and even the enigmatic Tesla – whose Serbian-accented English is recreated in clever fashion by Moore, who explains his technique in the appendix – come to life on the page in three dimensions even with the limitations of their roles. Moore relied largely on historical information to flesh out the characters, with the main exception of Agnes Huntington, Cravath’s wife, on whom there was very little documentation, leading Moore (or perhaps simply allowing him) to create her backstory and eventual romance with Cravath out of whole cloth. The trick allows Moore to give the book its one proper female character, since the War of Currents was fought entirely by men in domains – science and the law – that were closed to women until the last century.

I found the pace of Last Days a little frenetic, definitely aimed more at the popular end of the market than the literary end; events move quickly, as Moore compressed almost a decade into about two years, and the book has short chapters and tons of dialogue to keep up the velocity. That meant I tore through the book but found it a little balanced towards action over meaning; there was just less to ponder, especially after the book was over, but I also never wanted to put the book down because there are so few points where the pace slackens. That makes it a rarity for me – a book I could recommend to anyone who likes fiction, regardless of what sort of fiction you like.

Next up: Still playing catchup with reviews; I’ve finished Grazia Deledda’s After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle) and Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

Les Misérables (book).

My breakdown of the Jeff Samardzija trade is up for Insiders now.

Victor Hugo’s The Wretched (Les Misérables) is by far the longest book I’ve ever read, over 1300 pages and well over half a million words, and if you’re considering tackling it too, I strongly suggest you just watch the musical instead. Cameron Mackintosh changed very little of the novel’s plot for the stage version and omitted nothing of significance; Hugo padded his novel with lengthy expositions on topics from Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo to the structure of the Parisian sewer network, none of which is remotely worth your time.

If you’ve avoided the musical in both its stage and film versions, the plot of the book is quite simple and linear given the tome’s thickness. Jean Valjean was convicted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and ended up spending nineteen years in prison after multiple failed escape attempts. He gains his freedom but finds himself rejected by everyone in society, unable even to find a place to stay, only finding shelter with a bishop possessed of impeccable compassion, a night that leads Valjean to a religious awakening and gives his life new purpose – but also makes him (in modern terms) a parole violator, doomed to a life of fleeing the robotic law-and-order Inspector Javert. Valjean takes on responsibility for Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a fallen seamstress named Fantine, after a handful of coincidences – something that Hugo uses repeatedly to put his small universe of characters into incessant contact with each other. When Cosette reaches her late teens, she falls for the student Marius, who’s tangentially involved with a group of would-be rebels who set up a barricade in the streets during the uprising of 1832, after which everyone dies but Marius, who’s saved by Valjean … and I haven’t even mentioned Thénadier, who hangs around this book like a bad penny.

There aren’t any proper subplots and most of the characters get minimal development other than Valjean, leaving the book somewhere between a character study and a vehicle for Hugo to discuss his views on religion, politics, and French history, as well as the sewers. Valjean’s status as an iconic character of literature may result from his own impossible goodness, his willingness to subvert himself to help others, notably Cosette, but he’s far more interesting for his verbose internal debates over the proper course of action when faced with difficult moral decisions. Fantine’s story is sad and probably well-founded in reality, but it’s a straight-line descent, and Hugo makes them almost comically good – sweet, dainty, ladylike. Javert lacks any sort of nuance, rigid in his adherence to order and authority, devoid not just of compassion but of emotion. Marius is the standard romantic-heroic doofus, and he and Cosette deserve each other if only for their mutual insipidness – each of them has the personality of a root vegetable. Gavroche, the imp who dies helping the insurgents at the barricade, might get more character development than most of the adults, as well as some details that are left out of the musical, such as the fact that he’s Éponine’s younger brother – and that they have three other siblings. Éponine is a very different character in the book, less overtly tragic than in the musical. Her love for Marius isn’t lifelong, but fleeting, and he’s barely aware of her existence, but “On My Own” wouldn’t quite pack the same punch if Mackintosh had left it as a mere crush than unrequited love.

Hugo’s purpose in writing the novel was social criticism, particularly the French systems of economics and justice, which resulted in huge disparities between the wealthy and the poor, while creating (in Hugo’s view) a very high risk of recidivism for released convicts. He paints dismal pictures of the lives of the poor in France and the plight of women born or left outside the narrow upper echelon of society, especially those who, like Fantine, are left as unwed mothers, with no recourse to make the fathers of their children take responsibility. But to craft these polemics, he relies on endless coincidences and forces his characters to make choices or decisions that beggar belief, right down to Valjean’s final, ridiculous choice to remove himself from Cosette’s life after her marriage to Marius without explaining to her why he’s done so – or to Marius why his revelation of his criminal past should be irrelevant. (Marius is such a doofus that he goes along with Valjean’s self-imposed exile anyway.) Heck, even Fantine’s decision to house her child with the Th&ecaute;nardiers, a critical plot point several times over, makes no sense – yet without it, nothing that comes afterwards would hold together. She happens to work in Valjean’s factory, he happens to come upon her as she’s about to be arrested by Javert, and so on. Hugo writes as if there were only a half a dozen people in France and it was perfectly normal for Valjean to bump into Javert or Thénardier while walking down the street – or that all of these nitwits should end up at some point in the same ramshackle tenement.

Had Hugo published Les Misérables as a 300-page romantic/adventure novel, it would have been a much better read but might not have endured as a work of populist fiction. Yet despite a mediocre contemporary reception and the presence of those tedious harangues on social or political subjects, it ended up at #90 on The Novel 100 and made the Bloomsbury 100 too, which I have to assume is as much about the book’s renown as its quality. There’s a decent story in here, but it’s just not a very good book.

Next up: I knocked off the sixth Flavia de Luce novel, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, in a day – and feared, incorrectly as it turned out, that it marked the end of the series – and am now halfway through John Scalzi’s Hugo Award winner Redshirts, which is hilarious.

Bleak House.

My second “mock” draft for 2014 is up for Insiders today.

I’ve had mixed views on Charles Dickens over the years, loathing his work when forced to read Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities in high school, only to enjoy The Pickwick Papers tremendously when I read it at age 34, picking up more of the wordplay and sarcasm but also benefiting from a more free-wheeling storyline. I even read abridged (Moby books) versions of at least two other Dickens novels when I was about my daughter’s age, and still remember hating Fagin – probably a reason I’ve never read the unabridged Oliver Twist to this day. My goal of completing the full list of titles on the Bloomsbury 100 forced me to decide on Dickens’ longest and most highly-regarded work, the 350,000-word Bleak House, a legal drama, soap opera, romance, and mystery all wrapped up in an overarching work of stinging social criticism.

The central plot device in Bleak House is a never-ending lawsuit in England’s Chancery Court, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a case that originated as a dispute over a will that has since devolved into a nightmarish sequence of legal maneuvers designed only to rack up billable hours, with no evident progress toward a conclusion. The suit has already driven one claimant, the dotty Miss Flite, to madness, and its promise of lucre if it ever reaches a conclusion will lead other characters down that path over the course of the book. Dickens uses the lawsuit as a method of introducing a panoply of main and secondary characters, and splits the narration between his omniscient voice and the orphan Esther Summerson, who becomes a ward of John Jarndyce and companion to another of his wards, Ada Clare. Ada’s romance with her cousin Richard Carstone, and his subsequent search for an actual career, form the basis for one major plot thread, while the unknown history of Lady Dedlock, another claimant to part of the Jarndyce fortune, forms another. The latter story eventually leads to murder, a mystery that gives the novel some much-needed narrative greed just as Dickens seemed to be passing his pitch count and losing his fastball.

Dickens published the novel in monthly installments, something he did for many of his novels, which is the common explanation for his verbose prose, mostly comprising overly detailed descriptions of anything worth describing in the text. But the style also likely encouraged Dickens to craft chapters as individual episodes, moving the stories along and creating cliffhangers and twists to conclude them, so that even the modern reader won’t get too bogged down in lengthy descriptions of a stand of trees or the furniture in a sitting room. I also got the impression while reading Bleak House that the serial nature of the initial publication may have helped blunt the impact of the numerous deaths, mostly tragic (and one, Mr. Krook’s, rather comic), that occur over the course of the novel, ranging from deaths due to poverty and disease to those due to drug abuse, mania, or a broken heart.

The social criticism within Bleak House remains the book’s main selling point in modern reviews and rankings, with Daniel Burt naming it the 12th-best novel of all time in The Novel 100, tops among the Dickens novels on his list. The theme of a chasm between the haves and have-nots still resonates today, especially in the United States where the safety net is tattered and worn, but it’s somewhat obscured by the soap opera that dominates the novel’s plot. To make the story appeal to a large audience, Dickens included no end of romantic entanglements, loony side characters (some enjoyable, some just too ridiculous), and deaths and illnesses, all of which serve both to stretch the book out and to provide entertainment value. The absurd Mr. Smallweed (whose physical state seems a dead ringer for J.K. Rowling’s depictions of Lord Voldemort at the beginning of Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire), the rakish Mr. Skimpole, and the doomed Mr. Krook all have their moments of humor, often dark, but Dickens overplayed many of his other jokes, such as Mrs. Jellyby, a woman obsessed with Africa to the point of ignoring her own children – a metaphor for England and for missionaries more worried about converting African natives than feeding the local poor. (I’ve already slipped one reference to Mr. Krook into an ESPN column, and there will be more when Oregon pitcher Matt Krook is draft-eligible again in 2016.) That’s the main reason why the third quarter or so of the book began to drag, along with Dickens’ too-prolix prose, before he inserts a murder and the ensuing mystery to ratchet the tension back up in a race to the finish. Without that, finishing Bleak House would have been quite a chore.

I haven’t seen the award-winning 2005 mini-series (free for Amazon Prime members) which adapted the book into an 8½-hour serial and included in its large cast a young Carrie Mulligan (as Ada Clare), Gillian Anderson (as Lady Dedlock), and Patrick Kennedy (as Richard Carstone), but would welcome any feedback on whether it’s worth tackling.

Next up: I’m behind on reviews, having already finished Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka’s memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood, and just started Attila Bartis’ Tranquility.

Little Women.

I’ve been busy this weekend, with Insider posts reacting to the Jhonny Peralta signing with St. Louis and the Brian McCann signing with the Yankees. I’ll continue posting reaction pieces as needed this week. I’ll also post an updated “gift guide for cooks” piece here on Monday.

I actually read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in third grade or so, as it was one of a series of abridged, illustrated classics I’d been tearing through as fast as my parents could buy them. I remembered the basics of most of the plots, including Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror (“The Telltale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Junebug,” and, surprisingly for a book aimed at kids, “The Cask of Amontillado”), as well as bits and pieces of Alcott’s book – enough to understand that episode of Friends when it aired.

I didn’t think that version of Little Women counted for the purposes of reading the entire Bloomsbury 100, so I tackled the adult version last week. (The book also appears on the Guardian top 100 list.) I knew the book would be sentimental and more geared toward female readers, but I was surprised by many elements of it. There’s a latent feminist streak in it, one that at least treats its female characters as independent-minded individuals, equal to the men in spirit if not in the eyes of society, although in the end the women do settle in one way or another for marriage and motherhood. That feminist bent was quickly overshadowed by the rising tide of feminist novels where gender inequality led to tragedy, like The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest, so Alcott’s feminism feels very dated today.

However, the novel also represents a different twist on the utopian novels of the time period; rather than describing a future, technical utopia, Alcott instead presents a version of her contemporary world only tangentially affected by the ills of the age. The four little women of the title are the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, leaving them in tight circumstances but not poverty, which is something they see but don’t experience. Their father is wounded, but returns home and survives, another example of tragedy coming close but not hitting home. Across the two parts of the book – it was published in two volumes, the second coming after the first had proven a resounding commercial success – only one significant tragedy visits the March household, that in the second book and with enough advance warning to the reader that by the time it happens it’s almost cathartic. Rather than depict life as it should or might be, the type of fantastic scenario you’d find in News from Nowhere or Looking Backward, Alcott gives us life as we’d like it to be: Full of love and happiness, without serious setbacks or disasters, where most of our worries end up for nothing at all.

There’s also a coming-of-age element to Little Women that I don’t recall seeing in any earlier novel, at least not in English or American literature, where the subject was female. Boys in literature came of age; girls got married to those boys as needed. Alcott gives her girls life, with distinct personalities and differing aims. Each has some rite of passage in the first book, all of which influences their fates in the second. The one character who stuck with me most when I read the book as a child still stood out today, as Jo was Alcott’s stand-in for herself, a wilful, clever girl, forebear to Dorothea of Middlemarch (who had Jo’s intellectual bent but ruined herself in a bad marriage), and by the end of Little Women its most essential character. I wondered as a kid if the presence of a character named Jo on the series The Facts of Life, which (after Jo’s arrival) focused on four teenaged girls living together at a boarding school, was an homage to Alcott’s book, especially as both girls shared tomboyish looks and attitudes and had the same dislike of societal rules and authority.

Next up: I knocked off H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds last week, having heard the Orson Welles broadcast but never read the book, and am now a third of the way through another Bloomsbury 100 title, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

The Land that Never Was.

Klawchat today at 1 pm EDT. I’ll have a Top Chef recap up late tonight or early Friday morning.

Poyais was a small, independent principality (later republic) on the Mosquito Coast of Central America, protected by mountains from invasion by neighboring Spanish territories, blessed with abundant natural resources, and, according to its Cazique Gregor Macgregor, desperate for English colonists to come populate it. Macgregor issued bonds on behalf of the Poyais government on London exchanges, and sold plots of land in Poyais to eager would-be settlers from all economic strata, desperate blue-collar workers to professional men promised positions of authority in the Poyais government. He eventually attracted 240 men, women, and children and loading them on two ships bound across the Atlantic, while he remained in England to float more debentures and recruit further colonists.

If you’ve never heard of Poyais – I hadn’t, in any context – that’s because it was Macgregor’s fabrication, all part of an elaborate fraud he used to pilfer money from investors and settlers alike. David Sinclair’s The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor Macgregor And The Most Audacious Fraud In History covers this long-forgotten scam, which claimed the lives of 180 of those 240 settlers, yet for which Macgregor only served a few months in jail, eventually dying in exile in Caracas in 1845, still a free man.

Sinclair’s retelling is fairly straightforward, taking readers back through Macgregor’s history as a soldier of fortune with ambitions beyond his abilities and a talent for lying through his teeth when it suited his purposes (such as taking credit for battles or adventures in which he hadn’t fought). He depicts Macgregor as a silver-tongued confidence man taking advantage of a time when Central and South America were all the rage among English investors and reporters, an environment that was ripe for a polished scam artist who had just enough legitimacy in his credentials to pull it off. The people Macgregor fooled weren’t all rubes or uneducated citizens – many were successful professional men who bought Macgregor’s promises of government appointments in European-style cities in Poyais that just needed experienced leaders to fill out its government.

Knowing nothing about the Poyais scheme beyond what I read in Sinclair’s book, I was more struck by another aspect of Macgregor’s temporary success: He told people what they wanted to hear. The fantasy he created put an apparent physical reality to the aspirations of the middle-class men he recruited to lead the colony, and to the desperate dreams of poorer workers in search of greater economic opportunity than they found in the heavily populated, stagnating England. A century after the disastrous Darien scheme, a failed attempt to establish a Scottish colony on the northeast coast of what is now Panama, nearly bankrupted the nation’s landowners and led to their 1707 union with England, the Scots fell for a fabrication that catered to their disillusion over their last failure but promised little risk because the colony had already been established. Macgregor wrote his pamphlets in a bombastic style, sometimes under assumed names, to improve their appeal, but the audience had to be willing to receive it. Whether he was just fortunate in his timing or truly understood that he was selling something his listeners or readers wanted to buy, it was a critical element in the success of the scam.

Macgregor was eventually found out, but paid very little penalty for it, so Sinclair’s story lacks the sort of natural climax and resolution you’d expect or want in a story of a terrible fraud that cost not just money but innocent lives, including those of children. The reactions of the survivors are shocking, far more interesting than the limited time we see of Macgregor facing legal charges in France, but robs Sinclair a little of the strength of a traditional narrative – not that there’s much he could have done to improve that. Instead, the book’s greatest strength comes in its midsection, where we follow Macgregor around as he sells his nonsense and then read about the plight of the colonists when they get to Poyais and find nothing there. That alone makes it well worth a read, even if its story arc isn’t what we typically expect (unfairly, perhaps) from narrative non-fiction.

Next up: I’m halfway through Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, which is going far better than I expected given what little I’ve previously read of James’ work.

New Grub Street.

George Gissing’s 1891 novel New Grub Street (free for Kindle) is an angry, biting, brilliant, but slow-moving novel about writers grappling with a changing literary environment in late 19th-century England, faced with a growing dichotomy between serious literary work and lowbrow work that is more commercially viable. It appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and is an honorable mention in The Novel 100. Its title refers to the defunct Grub Street in London, which had become synonymous with hack writing by the time of this novel’s publication.

The two central characters, friends yet rivals, are Jasper Milvain, the materialistic, ambitious writer who thinks of writing as a trade rather than an art; and Edwin Reardon, a poor, married father who sees himself as an artist but struggles with writer’s block, perhaps brought on by the pressure of having to support a family and live up to his own expectations of himself.

Milvain – I’m assuming the “vain” part of his name is not a coincidence – is naked in his ambition, an English Julien Sorel (but less witless), and talks incessantly about his plans to further his writing career, including tricks like reviewing the same book with different opinions for multiple publications. He also seeks a profitable marriage to a woman with capital and who would make a suitable mate for him in nouveau literary circles, a goal that has him proposing marriage to a new legatee, Marian Yule, only to find him regretting the act when her fortune disappears before she can inherit it. His interest in romantic love is as limited as his concern for literary merit in his output:

“I care very little about titles; what I look to is intellectual distinction.” (Jasper)
“Combined with financial success.” (his sister, Dora)
“Why, that is what distinction means.”

Reardon, on the other hand, is Gissing’s equivalent to the nameless narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, poor (although not quite starving), with two published novels, neither of which sold well, the latter of which was less well-received by critics than the former, now facing reduced circumstances if he can’t complete and sell another work. His wife, Amy, loves him but grows exasperated with his self-defeating attitude; as their money troubles grow, their bickering becomes a quarrel that leads to separation, while Edwin convinces himself that Amy is withholding affection and also finds himself without love for their son, Willie.

Milvain and Reardon’s diverging paths are set against the contrast of two other secondary characters who follow more extreme versions of the same careers. Whelpdale is as ambitious as Milvain, yet far more sentimental, and succeeds in business through hard work and good character; Biffen, on the other hand, is a true starving artist, hard at work on a magnum opus that is, of course, unreadable, the completion of which leaves him without a purpose in life (and with almost no profit for his labors).

Jasper is far from sympathetic, but he’s the book’s most interesting character because he is in constant motion, scheming to push himself forward, making and breaking alliances as needed, playing both ends of an argument for his own gain. He views himself as worldly, yet shows a comical ignorance of the lives of those who lack his advantages:

“I always feel it rather humiliating,” said Jasper, “that I have gone through no very serious hardships. It must be so gratifying to say to young fellows who are just beginning: ‘Ah, I remember when I was within an ace of starving to death,’ and then come out with Grub Street reminiscences of the most appalling kind. Unfortunately, I have always had enough to eat.”

His plotting extends to his two sisters, Maud and Dora, pushing them to earn their livings through writing and to make advantageous matches; Maud is the silly girl, falling for a wealthy cad who is bound to disappoint her, but Dora, Gissing’s best secondary character here, is a very modern, progressive woman for that era; she sees her brother as superficial and isn’t afraid to openly mock him for it. Gissing narrates in the third-person, as he must to track all of these storylines, but Dora would have been an excellent choice for a first-person narrator and serves some of that role on a limited basis when she frames Jasper’s more absurd outbursts.

Gissing was an early proponent of naturalism in literature, using highly detailed, realistic language and settings to criticize the social order of the day, from the declining recognition of literature as art to the constraints of Victorian morality. When Amy and Edwin separate but can’t easily divorce, she raises this criticism of the difficulty of divorce for the lower classes:

“Isn’t it a most ridiculous thing that married people who both wish to separate can’t do so and be quite free again?” (Amy)
“I suppose it would lead to all sorts of troubles – don’t you think?” (Edith)
“So people say about every new step in civilization.”

English society survived, of course, and Amy’s/Gissing’s observation about doomsayers remains relevant today. New Grub Street isn’t a protest novel per se, but the struggles of Reardon (the more autobiographical of the two central characters) offer up a complaint against the rising materialism of the era drawn from Gissing’s own experiences as a starving young writer while foreshadowing Gissing’s own marriage to a woman who didn’t appreciate him as an artist.

Where New Grub Street falls short is in narrative greed. Novels about writers or writing tend to be light on action – will he finish the book? will she have enough to pay the rent? are not the sort of questions to keep the pages turning, and only Gissing’s heavy use of dialogue kept the pacing up. I’ve read a handful of novels about writers, the best of which was probably Dawn Powell’s The Wicked Pavilion, an ensemble novel that sends up all manner of artists and the rich philistines who fund them.

Next up: Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, an alternate-history work about the rise of a American fascist politician leading up to the 1936 election.

The City and the Mountains.

José Maria de Eça de Queirós is, according to several sources (including Encyclopedia Britannica and novelist Jose Saramago), considered Portugal’s greatest novelist, yet his works are apparently just now becoming available in English. He introduced realism to Portuguese literature and idolized Flaubert and Balzac while earning comparisons to Zola.

His novel The City and the Mountains, published in Portugal a year after his death and recently translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is a fable wrapped in a paean to natural and rural living. The story revolves around the narrator’s lifelong friend, Jacinto, who lives in luxury in Paris surrounded by high society and machines designed to make his life easier, yet who is miserable and dying of ennui until a chance occurrence recalls him to his ancestral home in the fictional countryside town of Tormes, Portugal.

The novel begins in in Paris (the City) and ends in Tormes (the Mountains), moving from a satire of the decadent and spiritually bankrupt Paris of the late 1800s to the pure, honest, yet feudal society of the still-agrarian Portuguese country. Jacinto’s life in Paris is one of misadventure more than adventure, especially as his machines malfunction, leading him to try to acquire bigger and more complex machines to replace them. Eça de Quierós lampoons the opulence and conspicuous consumption of Parisian society with depictions of over-the-top parties and empty-headed aristocrats as Jacinto drifts unwittingly into soul-crushing despair. Even the religion of the wealthy city-dwellers is perfunctory and perhaps faithless, more concerned with status and the religious hierarchy than questions of piety and charity.

Yet a chance event in Tormes beckons him home, a trip for which he tries to pack as many of his earthly possessions, fearing (ironically) boredom in the isolated hillside town where his family estate lies. After the comic misadventures of the multi-day train trip with the narrator, Zé Fernandes, they arrive in Tormes and Jacinto gradually rediscovers himself, according to Zé:

I forthrightly compared him to an etiolated plant that had been shriveling up in the darkness, among rugs and silks, but which, once placed outside in the wind and the sun and watered profusely, grows green again, bursts into flower and does honor to Mother Nature! … In the City, his eyes had grown crepuscular, as if averted from the World; now, though, there danced in them a noon-tide light, resolute and generous, content to drink in the beauty of things. Even his moustache had grown curly.

Yet Tormes isn’t quite the paradise Jacinto first believes it to be, as the income disparity that was hidden from view in Paris is out in the open on his family’s vast estate. Jacinto himself decides to take on the role of social reformer in the face of opposition from the caretakers, standing in as symbols of the old way of life. It is, in many ways, a call to action to readers who have lost their spirits in the great cities of the time: return to the country, to nature, to your faith, and to your humanity. Even if the setting is dated, the disconnect with nature and the emotional desolation of city life is more than ever a part of our society (and I say that as an unabashed fan in many ways of great cities).

Eça de Queirós litters the book with direct and indirect allusions to literary works, particularly Don Quixote (also a tale of two friends on a quest) and Homer’s The Odyssey (also a quest, one where the main character, like Jacinto, returns at the end to the place of his birth). The two main characters read and re-read these works, and Zé does comment on the parallels between their quest and those of the stories they read, but Eça de Queirós imbues his characters’ quest with a more urgent meaning while still bringing much of the comic brilliance of Cervantes, perhaps even more impressively since he doesn’t get to use the obvious dim-bulb jokes on which Cervantes could rely.

I was talking to We’ve Got Heart’s Kristen H. about the book, and she brought up The Alchemist. I found The City and the Mountains to be a better book overall, with a stronger plot and much better prose, while also offering a powerful message, one with both mundane and spiritual elements.

Next up: Our friend Joe Posnanski’s The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America, still just $5.99 hardcover at

North and South.

I always keep my conscience as tight shut up as a jack-in-a-box, for when it jumps into existence it surprises me by its size.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is a somewhat forgotten (at least in the U.S.) classic of 19th century Brit Lit which I discovered by way of the Bloomsbury 100. It’s a sort of Pride and Prejudice meets Germinal, combining a romance between two people who can’t admit their feelings for each other with a commentary on Britain’s “social problem” during its Industrial Revolution in the early to mid-1800s.

North and South‘s heroine is Margaret Hale, who opens the book by rejecting a marriage proposal from Henry Lennox, the old-fashioned and paternalistic lawyer whose brother has just married Margaret’s cousin, Edith. Margaret’s father then announces that he has become a Dissenter and is leaving his post as minister in the southern hamlet of Helstone, instead moving the family north to the industrial town of Milton (a thinly-disguised version of Manchester) where he’ll become a tutor to a local industrialist named Mr. Thornton. Thornton and Margaret take an instant dislike to each other, sparring over the rights and responsibilities of labor and management in a mirror of the contemporary debates over workers’ rights in England at the time. And, of course, they fall in love.

What works about the novel is that while the romance is the foundation of the story, it spends most of the book in the background as Gaskell uses Margaret and Thornton as launching points for subplots around the labor-management strife in Milton. Margaret’s chance encounter with Bessy Higgins, who is terminally ill from working in a textile mill during her childhood, and her father creates a direct window into the life of workers in England’s factories during the 1800s. Gaskell relies a little heavily on coincidence to make sure that the lives of Margaret, Thornton, the Higginses, Margaret’s godfather Mr. Bell, and even Henry Lennox all intersect, although this was very common even in the best literature of the period, and it’s a justifiable maneuver to ensure that both the social commentary and the romance come to a conclusion in the book’s 500-ish pages.

What worked less for me was the romance itself, which felt a little too derivative of Pride and Prejudice and finds a resolution that is driven in large part by money, rather than by emotions or the development of the main characters. In Austen’s masterpiece, Elizabeth Bennet comes around as she learns more of Mr. Darcy’s character and has to admit to herself that she did him an injustice in their earlier meetings. Here, Gaskell imbues Margaret Hale with similar strength of spirit, but denies her the chance for a completely self-sufficient redemption.

Next up: I like big books and I cannot lie – John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a parody of the picaresque novel, in all its 750 pages of glory.

Vanity Fair.

Ah! Vanitus Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?

That would have to make the list of famous penultimate lines, as it summarizes Vanity Fair on its final page, number 809 in the edition I read. The book appears at #24 on the Novel 100 and #19 on the Guardian 100.

Thackeray’s magnum opus is a sort of anti-picaresque satire of pre-Victorian society – anti-picaresque because most of the “action” is decidedly dull and because the book lacks a hero, a satire for Thackeray’s unflinching looks at the hypocrisy and self-importance of both old- and new-money aristocrats. The novel’s twin centers are the kind, witless, and occasionally simpering Amelia Sedley, born to moderate affluence but with a father who is absolutely reckless with money, and her boarding-school friend Becky Sharp, an orphan with borderline personality disorder who views every person she meets as a potential stepping stone or obstacle to her rise to fortune and status. Both make questionable marriages, bear sons, and follow their husbands to Belgium where both men participate briefly in the war against Napoleon’s forces. From there, the storylines split, only to reunite towards the book’s neither-happy-nor-unhappy ending.

Thackeray’s characterizations are the book’s strength. He sets Becky up as the underdog, only to reveal her as a Machiavellian home-wrecking bitch over the course of a few hundred pages. Amelia might emerge as the heroine until you realize that she’s ineffectual and weak. Even Major Dobbin, probably the one clearly “good” character among the primaries, reveals his own character flaw with his childlike devotion to Amelia, even as she takes him for granted and marries another man.

On the other hand, the satire may have been rapier-sharp in the mid-19th century, but it’s hard to fully appreciate it with little knowledge of the society he’s lampooning. I got more humor from the wordplay (with some help from the footnotes), his knack for absurdly named characters (foreshadowing Wodehouse and Powell?), and his snarky narration. If you think lines like “And the worthy civilian being haunted by a dim consciousness that the lad thought him an ass…” are funny, you’ll enjoy the humor in Vanity Fair, which is much more of that sardonic variety than of a slapstick or other laugh-out-loud style.

Next up: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, a story about immigrant life in the U.S. prior to World War I. It’s also on the Novel 100.

The Counterfeiters.

I can’t say that I fully got the point of André Gide’s The Counterfeiters (#60, Novel 100). It’s interesting in a way as an early attempt at what we would now call metafiction, with mentions of a novel within the novel, and with the fictional author’s journals providing large chunks of the real novel’s narrative. But the story itself never grabbed me.

The novel’s overarching theme seems to be the decline of morality in post-World War I France, although how Gide could kvetch about morality is beyond me. The story lacks a single focus – Gide himself said his story was more like an ellipse, with two foci, than a circle with a single center – but generally revolves around Bernard Profitendieu, the illegitimate son of a judge who sets off on a search for identity, and Edouard, the frustrated novelist inside the book who ends up connected with Bernard through his own nephew Olivier, and who opens the door into a second plot revolving around a depressed old man who wants his grandson retrieved from his home in Poland. Neither of the storylines is particularly interesting, and the most interesting one, around the dissolute young boys who pass counterfeit coins (giving the novel its title), is given very short shrift until a sudden climax at the novel’s very end.

One thing that kept occurring to me is that Gide, generally classified as a homosexual but perhaps better described as a pederast, had little grasp of adult romantic relationships, especially those between men and women. Nearly every interaction among the various heterosexual couples or pairs in the book rang false for me, while the allusions to gay couplings mostly went over my head, except for the few times Edouard was a little less coy about his liaisons. Gide’s discomfort or unfamiliarity with normal adult relations kept me at arm’s length from most of the plot.

I also found some of the translations to be odd, resulting in awkward English phrasings that probably don’t reflect the actual tone of the French original.

Anyway, more comment seems superfluous since I didn’t care for the book and it doesn’t seem to be a commonly-read tome. Next up: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies . And yes, after that, Pale Fire.