The Count of Monte Cristo.

I’ve been lax in book blogging lately, between year-end lists and a run of longer reads (a few of which were duds) and the mystery/detective novels I don’t review unless it’s by an author I haven’t discussed before. The one loooong read that’s worth a mention here is Alexandre Dumas’ (père, which I won’t mention again because it’s not like anyone remembers anything his son wrote) The Count of Monte Cristo, which surpassed Gone with the Wind as the longest novel I’ve ever read. It’s on the Bloomsbury and Guardian top 100 lists, and while it didn’t have the same chewy center as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, it was still a fun and surprisingly rapid read.

Edmond Dantes is the Count of the title, although as the story opens he’s just an amiable young sailor, about to marry the girl of his dreams and earn a big promotion on the boat where he works, all of which pisses off his two main rivals in love and at sea. Those two conspire with a third man to ruin Dantes by a letter falsely accusing him of treason, which, thanks to a corrupt prosecutor looking to save his own hide, lands Dantes in a notorious prison, jailed without trial or even knowing the charge, with no hope of release or leniency.

After fourteen years in captivity, Dantes manages an escape (one of the book’s highlights), finds great wealth via his only friend in prison, and resurrects himself as The Count of Monte Cristo. This mysterious saint-like figure has infinite wealth and uses it to spare people in need, many of whom fail to recognize their former friend or rival after his long absence and changed appearance. Now 33, the Count plays the longest con of all, plotting to ruin the lives of the men who tried to ruin his and mostly succeeded. Over the course of maybe 300,000 words, about the length of three typical novels, Dantes lays elaborate traps for the three men most responsible for his plight, but, as you’d expect, runs into a few unforeseen complications that provoke introspection and self-doubt to let Dumas pad the ol’ word count a little further.

A superficial read of The Count of Monte Cristo as the mother of all revenge stories (which, by the way, is based on the true story of a Frenchman who did a lot of what Dantes did, just without all the cash) would still be time well spent. Dumas had the knack for building tension without seeming false, then providing huge, satisfying resolutions that are plausible within the confines of the story. If you accept the premise of Dantes obtaining an endless supply of money, then much of what comes afterwards is surprisingly realistic for a novel of the romantic/traditional period. Dumas paints the three targets as awful people, and you’ll find yourself rooting for him to give them what for. Even when there’s collateral damage, Dantes endeavors to make things right – money allows a vengeful man to be more precise – to keep the reader happy that no women or children will be unduly harmed in the reading of this novel.

Of course, you could also wring enough symbolism out of this book to send the Seine spilling over its banks, staring with Dantes himself coming back from the dead – or a stone crypt of sorts – at age 33, just like Jesus Christ. Dantes even believes himself to be sent by God, or an instrument of God to spread good fortune to those who deserve it and to crush those who would do or have done evil in the past (to him, that is). He’s not Jesus, but he’s Jesus-like, in the literary sense, which I imagine has been fodder for countless term papers and college theses.

Dantes is not perturbed by the thought of being used by a benevolent Deity to bring ill fortune or even death on those who have done others harm until after he’s nearly completed his scorched-earth campaign from Provence to Paris. He even acquires a coterie of servants and acolytes and helps them obtain revenge they were unaware they could achieve, again with little thought to whether these acts were, in themselves, evil, or at least un-Christian. The twisted theology of the Count, coupled with his monomaniacal pursuit of vengeance, might have rendered him more insane than saintly; there is no potential for forgiveness or a commutation of the sentences Dantes plans to deliver. Even though the men who wronged him don’t deserve clemency and continue to act without regard for the well-being of others, Dantes goes way too long – years, at least – before experiencing anything like remorse for his own ruthlessness in smiting his enemies.

I wouldn’t say I’m likely to reread the book, but it might be a more fruitful read to consider it as Dantes’ search for meaning, the development of his own philosophy of life. He enters the prison believing he knows all that matters, and leaves it full of practical knowledge but emotionally void other than his wish for vengeance. Through years of wealth, of making others’ dreams come true, of ruining lives that were probably worth ruining but also ruining a few others in the process, the Count arrives at a very different mental state than the one he held at the start of the book. He never monologues but does offer hints at his newfound philosophical leaning, such as:

“There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more.”

There’s some ambiguity in the end of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with hints that Dantes intends to retire from public life, in a somewhat monastic sense, which would provide a clever parallel to his time in prison, where he was deprived of almost everything except for the companionship of the abbe in the next cell. Dumas recognizes that you can’t bring a life full circle because Dantes can’t undo all the damage done. Instead, he gives Dantes satisfaction enough to sail off into the novel’s sunset, unfulfilled emotionally but at least bearing the pride of a twenty-year-old task completed.

* Two wonderful quotes about food from this book, the first describing what we know recognize as umami, the “fifth taste” found in foods high in glutamates:

“Tell me, the first time you tasted oysters, tea, porter, truffles, and sundry other dainties which you now adore, did you like them?”

And the second, a serious line that reads as a joke now, one that could only have been penned by a Frenchman:

“condemned to partake of Italian cookery—that is, the worst in the world.”

* Euphemisms for death abound in every language, and, along with euphemisms for sex, show tremendous creativity. Dumas offers one I hadn’t seen before, with one character asking if anther has “paid the last debt of nature?”

* I mentioned reading a few duds that didn’t merit writeups. Two were from the Bloomsbury list – Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, a fable about two men who choose widely divergent paths in search of enlightenment, and Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, a romantic (in the traditional sense) novel about two sisters with widely divergent personalities who live separate, different lives but end up in the same place. I also read Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Breathing Lessons, which is just a bad Richard Russo book. Next up: Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy, a 1991 book by Jostein Gaarder.

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.

Kipps and Dangerous Liaisons.

Last week’s ESPN content included a look at a few top prospects who were called up and a Klawchat. I also contributed to the new Future Power Rankings by naming a “new #GUY” prospect for each system, ignoring players who were just drafted in June or who were previously on my top 50/100.

I’d only read one H.G. Wells novel, his sci-fi/social commentary classic The Time Machine, before encountering Kipps The Story of a Simple Soul on the Bloomsbury 100. Another novel of deep social criticism, Kipps represents Wells’ attack on the gulf between haves and have-nots in late 19th century England while simultaneously rejecting socialism as a solution, wrapped in the envelope of a rags-to-riches-to-rags romance that works effectively on its own and as a delivery mechanism for Wells’ polemics.

Kipps himself is Arthur “Artie” Kipps, who has been shipped off by his mother (with his father unknown) to be raised by his Puritanical and simple-minded aunt and uncle. While attending a useless primary school, he falls in love with Ann, the sister of his best friend Sid, only to lose track of her when he begins his apprenticeship as a draper at age 14. The drudgery and limited outlook for working-class children sent into this sort of indentured servitude comes under Wells’ fire, as does the factory system’s wide latitude for employers to cheat their helpless employees. Kipps ends up the recipient of a windfall inheritance, seeking then to raise himself up above his lower-class upbringing, yet also struggling with questions of moral responsibility associated with his newfound wealth, many raised by the minor character Masterman – an ardent socialist dying of tuberculosis. Kipps’ fortune disappears almost as quickly as he obtained it, and it is in his response to this turn of events that his inner character emerges from the facade of the semi-polished and utterly superficial Kipps of the book’s middle section.

Wells wrote Kipps with a satirist’s pen, mocking people with wealth and power at every turn yet never sparing those poor in all but ideas. Masterman’s polemics on capitalism are somewhat undercut by Wells’ decision to make the novel’s one socialist – or its only real philosopher of any sort – terminally ill with a disease known at the time as “consumption.” Kipps’ sudden acquisition of wealth changes the way nearly everyone in his life treats him, turning many supporting characters into comic relief, while also throwing him into many situations he finds embarrassing that are also send-ups of the circumstances that created them, such as a scene in the fine restaurant of the hotel he’s inhabiting, where walking in with the wrong shoes is just the first of his problems. The reader can only feel badly for Kipps, who is a stranger in the strange land of privilege, while scorning the various aristocrats who’d look down on him for his naivete.

The romance plot is the overarching storyline in the book, covering Kipps from childhood till the point when he loses his fortune (in predictable, but yet somewhat amusing fashion), even though it functions as a subplot under the more academic themes relating to Kipps’ career and time as one of the idle rich. Kipps’ childhood romance with Ann lasts until he turns 14 and leaves for a career in fabric, after which he ends up with a crush on the more sophisticated Helen Walsingham, who views him sympathetically but without much interest until his inheritance turns up. The way in which Kipps acquires that money doesn’t fit neatly into either plot line, but also provides one of the book’s most entertaining passages, particularly because the non-drinker Kipps goes on a lengthy bender that leads to an improbable connection to the lost money, while leading into a lengthy fish-out-of-water passage where Kipps flops and flounders his way through upper-class society.

Wells mimics lower-class speech in Kipps’ dialogue, with liaisons like “a nactor” for “an actor” and elisions like “mis’bel” for “miserable,” which can make reading the text a little slower, but he more than makes up for it with direct, modern prose that avoids the sluggishness that I’ve encountered in some of the other Bloomsbury 100 novels, even contemporaries of Kipps. It’s funny, cutting, sweet, and still quite relevant in a time of rising income inequality in capitalist societies yet in a world where socialist economies have failed.

I also knocked out Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons*, which appears on both the Bloomsbury and Guardian lists, although it took a solid week to get through the tedious prose and absurdly long letters between the main characters. Focusing on a romantic rivalry between the rake the Viscomte de Valmont and his quondam paramour the Marquise de Merteuil, both gleefully free of morals and engaged in multiple intrigues simultaneously. Their rivalry leads Valmont to “seduce” (rape, in modern terms) the 15-year-old ingenue Cécile de Volanges, which in turns sets their mutual downfall in motion.

*Not to be confused with “Dangeresque Liaisons.”

For a work involving sex (most of it of the consensual variety) and betrayal, Dangerous Liaisons is a plodding read, as the entire book comprises letters between the various characters floridly describing what they just did, or what they might do next, or (in Cécile’s case) what they would just like to do. I assume Laclos was moralizing in two ways, over promiscuity/infidelity but also over those who treat others as mere pawns for their own gains or pleasures, as both Valmont and Merteuil treat multiple lovers (or victims) in this way over the course of the novel. Yet Laclos makes the novel so one-sided that it fast becomes boring, in the way that Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward wears out its welcome with sermonizing on how the world should be.

I haven’t seen the Academy Award-nominated adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (a film adapted from a play adapted from a novel) starring John Malkovich (really?) as the roué Valmont, but I did watch the 1989 adaptation Valmont, with the far more believable Colin Firth in the role of the cad. That version altered the ending far too much to be considered a reasonable adaptation, crafting happy-ish endings for several characters and avoiding the more serious aspects of the novel’s depictions of Valmont and Merteuil (played by Annette Bening, also a solid casting choice).

Next up: Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, another selection from the Bloomsbury 100, and a novel that has appeared on at least two lists of the most important novels in the German canon.

The Brothers Karamazov.

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!

I thought I’d like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a lot more than I actually did. I loved Crime and Punishment and at least enjoyed the prose of Notes from Underground, while several of you said you thought I’d like Karamazov given what other novels I’ve said I like.

The plot is quite straightforward for a novel of about 900 pages. The three brothers of the title all vary widely in temperament and philosophy: Dmitri (also called Mitya), the hedonistic, hotheaded eldest brother; the Ivan, the dour, academic, atheist middle brother; and Alyosha, the gentle, highly religious youngest brother. The three are tied together by their father, the cold, profligate Fyodor Karamazov, who had two wives and may have fathered a fourth son, Smerdyakov, out of wedlock. Fyodor has little to with raising his sons, and no emotional connection to them, but is tied to them by questions of inheritance and social standing.

Dmitri’s womanizing eventually brings him into conflict with his father when the two pursue the same woman, while Dmitri also finds himself forced to turn to his family for money, leading to a dispute between Dmitry and his father over the former’s inheritance. When Fyodor is found murdered, Dmitry, who has vowed to kill his father before, is arrested and charged with the crime; Ivan ends up descending into madness while trying to esablish his brother’s guilt or innocence; and Alyosha, after leaving the monastery where he was a novice, ends up a sort of friend and mentor to Kolya, the brash leader of a group of local kids.

The novel’s length allows Dostoevsky to include a few subplots, such as Alyosha and Kolya, but the bulk of the novel is taken up by long passages such as the multi-chapter arc of Dmitri’s trial (in which Dostoevsky took aim at several highly publicized trials of the era, including one where the attorney defending a man accused of nearly beating his daughter to death humiliated the six-year-old victim on the stand). Another chapter has Ivan relating a parable he wrote, “The Grand Inquisitor,” to his brother Alyosha, expounding on Ivan’s questioning of the possibility of a benevolent, personal God, and the associated questions of free will and individual liberty. The story itself, which depicts a Spanish Inquisitor interrogating Jesus Christ after the latter returns to earth, leaves its ultimate meaning open to interpretation, fitting with the philosophical ambuigities of the novel as a whole.

Dostoevsky’s prose is actually quite easy to read, even though, like many Russian novelists, his sentences are long and he often veers from the main point. But I think my main problem with the book was that I could not get into the central philosophical conflict at the heart of the novel. Dmitri’s trial has some drama, as it’s not clear whether he’s guilty, but it is so long and drawn-out that his guilt is beside the point, as Dostoevsky seems to be offering his views on the jury trial itself, which was relatively new to Russia at the time the novel was published. Dostoevsky waxed extensively on similar questions of faith and freedom in Crime and Punishment while also delving into the nature of evil, and doing so in a novel that’s just over half of the length of this one, making it a more fluid read and also attacking the philosophical questions more effectively.

One bit I did enjoy was the substantial amount of dry, often dark humor in the novel, such as the comment about a European nose specialist who “can only cure your right nostril” and sends the patient to Vienna for a specialist who deals with left noses, or the devil, visiting Ivan in a hallucination, pointing out that, in hell, “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.” More of that would have made the book more compelling for me, although I imagine Dostoevsky was using humor primarily for satire purposes, not for laughs.

I feel like I should emphasize here this is a matter of personal preference – I’m not questioning the book’s legacy or place in the historical canon. It’s 5th on the Novel 100, 29th on the Guardian 100, and part of the Bloomsbury 100 I mentioned in Thursday’s chat, and has been cited as a heavy influence by numerous later authors from across the world. It’s a very ambitious novel, and I imagine a difficult one to conceive and write because of how much Dostoevsky was trying to express through dialogue without the benefit of action. Unfortunately, it left me wanting something more substantial; as easy as it was to move through the novel, I was never fully engaged by any of the stories or by the characters. Perhaps it’s my own tastes, and perhaps the novel just read as dated to me, but it wouldn’t make my personal top 100.

Of course, it’s just possible that the Bluths are the Karamazovs and everything suddenly makes sense.

Next up: I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is 7th on the Guardian 100, 32nd on the Novel 100, and on the Bloomsbury 100, after Karamazov. It’s bawdy and funny, full of explicit sexual humor and double entendres, but the language is so different from modern English that I found it hard to read and occasionally hard to follow. I’m now about a quarter of the way through H.G. Wells’ Kipps, which is also on the Bloomsbury 100.

The Tin Drum.

In case you missed it, I did a redraft of the first round of the 2002 Rule 4 draft for yesterday.

Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum stands for critics as one of the greatest novels in German literature, ranking 39th on The Novel 100, 70th on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written, and ranking fifth on this list of the best German novels of last century. Reading it for leisure doesn’t quite measure up to reading it as literature, and I believe a good number of allusions flew over my head due to my unfamiliarity with German (and Polish) history, but I hope I can recognize a novel’s greatness even if I wouldn’t say I loved reading it.

The drum of the title refers to a toy drum received by the narrator and main character, Oskar, for his third birthday. Oskar, precocious, cynical, and perhaps delusional, claims his personality was fully developed at birth, and at the age of three he stages an accident to prevent himself from growing physically, giving him an unusual vantage point for seeing and fooling the world, as he can play the innocent child to escape from mortal danger (even as he sends others, including both of the men he suspects of being his biological father, to their deaths), and uses that ruse to survive the German invasion of his hometown of Danzig/Gdansk, the assault on the Polish Post Office, Kristallnacht, World War II, and its immediate aftermath.

Oskar is mischievous, often devious, and has a strong instinct for self-preservation that he executes with one of his two great skills, using his voice to shatter glass, often to get what he wants but sometimes merely for the pleasure of destroying (although he might actually view it as creating, as a form of art). His other skill is to communicate via his drum: By playing the instrument, he can tell extensive stories and communicate his desires even before he’s able to speak – and he can pretend that he’s unable to speak for years beyond the point when he’s learned to do so.

Aside from the rampant symbolism – the drum, art, glass, aromas (Oskar has a hypersensitive sense of smell), Oskar’s obsession with his heritage despite its lack of clarity, and more – the brilliance of The Tin Drum is its use of humor and picaresque elements to lampoon Naziism, the church (and its complicity with the regime), and the willingness of so many Germans to go along with the regime. The book is sometimes crude and bawdy, but it’s in the service of dark, biting humor that tears apart Grass’s targets, such as the Nazi soldiers rotely building a wall and entombing small animals in it. You may often wish to avert your eyes (the horse’s head scene comes to mind), but these passages tend to be the book’s most powerful both on initial reading and after the book is done.

That said, it’s a tough read for two major reasons. One is simply that German syntax, even in this new, improved translation, doesn’t read that well to my English-reared mind. The other is that Oskar rambles, leading me to question whether he’s all there mentally or might even be unreliable as a narrator, producing long passages where nothing happens and I felt like I was reading in circles. The lengthy gaps between passages of action, or humor, or even dialogue, made it a tough slog, especially the final 100-150 pages – ordinarily a time of acceleration as the plot nears its conclusion. With The Tin Drum more of a history of a fictional character than a traditional linear narrative, there are no major plot points to resolve, and Oskar only undergoes one significant (albeit very significant) transformation in the book. It’s a cerebral novel where Oskar has some realizations but generally refuses to grow up, drawing not just from the picaresque tradition but from coming-of-age novels as well.

Next up: Alan Bradley’s second Flavia de Luce novel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.

Money: A Suicide Note.

Here’s another piece about that chick who’s dying in her teens because, according to the Line, she’s allergic to the twentieth century. Poor kid … Well I have my problems too, sister, but I don’t have yours. I’m not allergic to the twentieth century. I am addicted to the twentieth century.

Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which appeared on the TIME 100 and at #90 on the Guardian 100, is a hilarious modern picaresque novel that marries crude, over-the-top humor with serious themes of materialism and modern identity as well as a healthy dose of metafiction that called to mind Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.

The protagonist of Money, John Self, is an English director of TV adverts who is tabbed by Fielding Goodney to write the treatment for a new feature film titled Good Money, except when it’s instead titled Bad Money, although the film within the film is largely a Macguffin, with a plot that sounds comically awful but allows Amis to work in several caricatures of Hollywood actors and actresses. Self does very little actual work, spending most of his time drinking, whoring, masturbating, and spending gobs of money that Fielding provides, promising that there’s always more to be had. Along the way we meet Self’s live-in, transparently gold-digging girlfriend; his even more transparently dodgy father; and a number of friends and business acquaintances who may only tolerate Self because he serves as their connection to money.

Money is the true central character in Money even if it never has a line of dialogue. Characters are treated differently based on how much money they have; the more Self has at his disposal, the more doors open for him in the boardroom and the bedroom. When the money runs out, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that it does at one point, Self undergoes an existential crisis but still can’t let go of the dream of more money around the corner. And that question of identity – who are we without our things, or without our ability to do or buy more things, in an age of rampant materialism – fit the times in which the book was written (the 1980s, with the action in the book happening in the leadup to the last big royal wedding) but seem just as applicable today. Self himself comes to take the money for granted; there’s certainly no accounting going on, and he just assumes its supply is infinite and that he’s entitled to it, even though he’s doing little to no actual work within the book.

The humor, meanwhile, is decidedly lowbrow, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Self gets drunk, falls down, embarrasses himself, starts fights, deals with a stalker, cheats on the women he’s using to cheat on his girlfriend, says awful things, and blacks out on a regular basis. Amis is clearly a fan of creating silly character names in the P.G. Wodehouse tradition, and inserts himself into the book as a novelist who annoys Self and ends up working on the script to Good Money, while portraying the language of the slovenly, sodden Self (as narrator) as you might expect from the son of a great author who enjoyed a good tipple.

There was one line that struck me as familiar in a coincidental way – when Self says (of his time in a pub on one of his many benders, “I play the spacegames and the fruit-machines,” the song “Faded Glamour” by Animals That Swim came to mind with its line about “You tell me about cheap tequila/Place names and food machines.” I have no idea whether they’re connected, although I always thought the back half of that line might have been lost in translation.

Next up: I’ve already finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and just started Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.

The U.S.A. Trilogy.

My Cliff Lee analysis from last night is up for Insiders, as is a piece from earlier on Monday on Scott Downs, Brendan Ryan, and Ryan Theriot, featuring a TOOTBLAN reference.

John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy – The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money – is considered a landmark in American fiction, ranking 68th on the Novel 100, 23rd on the Modern Library 100, and 55th on the Brit-lit-skewed Guardian 100. Leading literary lights from Jean-Paul Sartre to Norman Mailer have praised Dos Passos’ writing in U.S.A. and the influence the work had in bringing modernism to the American novel. Taken in sum, this series of interconnected stories presents a panoramic view of the United States from the start of the Great War to the end of the Roaring 20s, where the main character is the scene and setting rather than any individual in the book. It’s not an easy read – more on that in a moment – but it is an important read if you read as a student rather than just for pleasure. (Not that there’s anything wrong with reading just for pleasure, of course.)

(Aside: The Novel 100 is back in print after several years out of it. The book, by literature professor Daniel Burt, ranks the 100 greatest novels ever written with an essay on each, and features a bonus, unranked list of the “second 100” after those. It’s been a great reading list for me, and I enjoy Burt’s analyses and comments on each book’s influence, even if I don’t always agree with his selections.)

Each book in the trilogy includes lengthy chapters following a dozen or so characters whose lives intertwine and whose paths cross with major historical figures, such as the young idealist who ends up working publicity on the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. These chapters, heavy on descriptive prose, are bookended by two types of mini-chapters, the Newsreel and “The Camera Eye.” The former is a list of clipped fragments from newspaper and magazine articles of the time, anchoring you to a specific year or month while also setting up some of the emotional framework for the chapter to follow; the latter is a somewhat indecipherable stream-of-consciousness, worm’s-eye view of society that I found myself skimming because it gave me bad memories of struggling through Ulysses last winter. Dos Passos also inserts short, stylized biographies of important Americans of the time period, from Henry Ford to Woodrow Wilson to Frederick Taylor to now-forgotten names like dancer Isadora Duncan and labor activist Joe Hill, written with an opinionated voice that also seeks to inform.

Dos Passos also based large chunks of the books on his own experiences in World War I as part of the volunteer ambulance corps in Paris – a role that seems to have required a lot more drinking and carousing than actual ambulance-driving, but one that also seems to have fueled the book’s derogatory portraits of upper-class American twits in Europe, chasing money or skirts or good times while there was a war going on around them.

What I didn’t like about U.S.A. was the lack of a central story, or even set of stories. The existential nature of the trilogy means characters wink in and out of the book and Dos Passos gives a lot of time to mundane matters without investing the reader at all in anyone’s fate or happiness – because, I presume, that wasn’t his point. Dos Passos set out to provide a slice of life, and I’m not sure any American writer has done it better – but it makes for a more academic read than a leisurely one, a trilogy you might pick up to help you better follow the transition in American literature from the 1920s to the 1940s, but not something you’re going to grab to get you through your next long plane ride.

My other regret about U.S.A. is that Dos Passos didn’t use more dialogue, because he was pretty sharp with it and could have given more depth to his characters just by having them speak more often, such as in this banter from 1919 regarding the League of Nations:

“It’s not the name you give things, it’s who’s getting theirs underneath that counts,” said Robbins.
“That’s a very cynical remark,” said the California woman. “This isn’t any time to be cynical.”
“This is a time,” said Robbins, “when if we weren’t cynical we’d shoot ourselves.”

Baseball does come up a few times in the book, as one character is a serious fan (right around the time of the Black Sox scandal, after which baseball earns scant mention – you’d think Babe Ruth would show up in some Newsreels, right?) while the section in The Big Money on Frederick Taylor claims that

At Exeter he was head of his class and captain of the ballteam, the first man to pitch overhand. (When umpires complained that overhand pitching wasn’t in the rules of the game, he answered that it got results.)

And if you’re into food, U.S.A. introduced me to “smearcase,” which can refer to a sort of farmer’s or cottage cheese among the Pennsylvania Dutch, but which in the Baltimore area refers to something more akin to cheesecake. (The name comes from the German Schmierkäse, meaning smear-cheese.)

Next up: I’ve finished Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister and am most of the way through Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel. Both authors are among my favorite American writers, Chandler for his phenomenal prose, Powell for her sardonic wit.

An Artist of the Floating World.

Kazuo Ishiguro appears twice on the Klaw 101, at 96 with Never Let Me Go and at 62 with Remains of the Day. That latter novel was preceded by An Artist of the Floating World (#91 on the Guardian 100), an interesting book that seems in many ways to have been Ishiguro’s tuneup for Remains, as both revolve around older men who find themselves forced to reflect on the professional and personal decisions they made earlier in life.

The artist of the title is Masuji Ono, a widowed father of two who lost his wife in a bombing and his son in combat during World War II, who has made a name for himself as a painter of patriotic images in support of the imperialist regime that ultimately led the country into that conflict. Now retired, Ono finds his relations with his daughters strained, but seems vaguely unaware of why, as the younger daughter moves towards a potential marriage after an earlier match fell through unexpectedly the previous year.

Ono narrates the book and the reader spends most of it following his peripatetic thoughts, jumping back to his formative years as an artist, his heyday leading an artistic circle in the bars of the “pleasure district,” and through conversations with his daughters and old friends that gradually leave him reeling by forcing him to reexamine his legacy. Yet even as he moves towards a quiet acknowledgment of the current unpopularity of his prior position and role, he retains some pride in his choices – or chooses to rationalize them away:

…I start to think of Sugimura and his schemes, and I confess I am beginning to feel a certain admiration for the man. For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions. It is my belief, furthermore, that Sugimura did not die an unhappy man. For his failure was quite unlike the undignified failures of most ordinary lives, and a man like Sugimura would have known this. If one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is a consolation – indeed a deep satisfaction – to be gained from this observation when looking back over one’s life.”

Remains of the Day succeeded because the main character was so well drawn and his cause for regret so subtle that the reader realized the cause for regret as the protagonist did, but in Artist, Ishiguro made the problem obvious to the reader as his main character fumbles his way towards the conclusion. Ono comes across as obtuse, not just in denial but simply unaware of how he’s seen or why his relations with family members, friends, or colleagues have changed over time. As Richard Russo’s Mohawk felt like a practice run for Empire Falls, this felt like a practice run for Ishiguro’s next novel, a fine read but nowhere near the quality of the two later novels of his that I’ve read.

Next up: James T. Farrell’s Young Lonigan, the first book of the Studs Lonigan Trilogy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is one of his two best-known novels, and even placed at #74 on the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time, a ranking I have to say I find rather dubious even though I thought it was an excellent read and a smart, realistic antidote to the standard spy novel featuring a dashing hero who’s always in great peril when he’s not in bed with a gorgeous double agent.

The protagonist at the heart of TTSS couldn’t be further from the James Bond mold, as George Smiley begins the novel in disgrace both at work, where he’s been forced out after a putsch, and at home, where his wife Ann has left him after years of infidelity. When a former agent, presumed defected, resurfaces with a story of a Soviet mole in The Circus (the top tier of what was then known as MI-6), Smiley and a few other folks on the outs at the Circus begin an effort to root out the mole, who appears to have been intimately involved in the palace coup that also resulted in a British agent getting arrested and shot in Brno and in several networks in Eastern Europe blowing up.

The brilliance of TTSS is that the novel is gripping with very little action, and no action in the novel’s present day until the final sequence where Smiley and his group set a trap for the mole. Apprised of the possible existence of the mole – the source for that info is dodgy at best – Smiley sets to work like an old-school detective, unraveling the story by talking to others ousted in the putsch and going after documents related to the compromised operation in Czechoslovakia as well as the Soviet leak who may in fact have been handling the double agent at the Circus. Le Carré carries it off through an intense dedication to realistic dialogue and actions – if there was a false note it fell below my detection threshold – and with flourishes of clever writing:

“Pulling the rug out when we’re all but home and dry.” His circulars read that way, too, thought Guillam. Metaphors chasing each other off the page.

He interlaces personal and professional issues for several of his characters, including Smiley and Peter Guillam, Smiley’s main accomplice in the investigation, the emotional counterpoint to the ironically-named Smiley’s stoicism, yet the book never drags as so many pensive novels do, where the characters’ inner thoughts overwhelm the story at the novel’s heart. There is no question that Smiley and company are detectives solving a mystery and that we are ultimately headed for some sort of denouement – a capture, a confrontation, an attack, whatever, you know that you’re driving towards a finish line, and even those asides into the minds of Smiley or Guillam or another character are just fuel for the engine that’s taking us there.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which Le Carré wrote before TTSS, relies on more traditional sources of tension, with the spy of the book’s title finding himself behind enemy lines and eventually in some jeopardy, although it is still relatively light on action. It’s a better place to start than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but if you’ve read and enjoyed it I’d recommend coming here next.

One thing that struck me while reading TTSS: Out of the seven main characters, three bear the names George, Percy, and Bill. And on the penultimate page of the book is the line: He wished he had brought her fur boots from the cupboard under the stairs. Anyone else think J.K. Rowling read a little Le Carré when she wasn’t reading Anthony Powell?

Next up: Something current, The Dolphin People by the author writing under the pseudonym Torsten Krol.

Mrs. Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf ripped James Joyce’s Ulysses when it was first published, but liked the idea of a single-day novel enough to use it in a novel of her own, one that hews more closely to the conventional novel form and appears to be something of a rejoinder to Joyce’s genre-busting efforts: Mrs. Dalloway. Unfortunately, a straightforward novel about quotidian life is about as interesting as you’d expect a novel about the mundane thoughts of ordinary people to be; that is, it’s boring as hell.

Woolf’s gambit is to spend most of the novel inside the heads of her characters, with jarring, unannounced transitions from head to head, sometimes within a room (almost as if you had a sudden camera change, from behind one character’s eyes to behind another’s), sometimes to a separate time and place through the slimmest of segues. Only one of her characters might qualify as interesting, the shell-shocked Septimus Smith, who today would be diagnosed with post-tramautic stress disorder and possibly treated, thus making him relatively uninteresting for the novelist’s purposes. The contrast between his futile attempts to make sense of a world gone mad – he’s a World War I veteran who hears voices and suffers paranoid delusions – and the utterly insignificant thoughts of the vapid upper-class characters in the rest of the book is shocking, but Woolf spends too much time with the well-heeled and not enough with Septimus.

The one wisp of intrigue in the book comes from the hints at romantic tension between Clarissa Dalloway and her former flame, Peter Walsh, once a boy of some promise but now a man whose progress has been hindered by his own poor choices. The sight of Clarissa still stirs old passions in Peter, reducing him to tears or boiling him in rage … but nothing much comes of it and Clarissa’s party, the goal of her day, goes off as planned. Her own existential crises – mostly a fear of death or simply regret that all this must one day end – seem so much less serious given how she chooses to spend her time or emotions.

Peter does have one small episode that stood out, for me, for its sheer darkness, as he stalks – there’s no better word for it – a young woman in the streets of London for several blocks before giving up:

Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums. And it was smashed to atoms – his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought – making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more. But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share – it smashed to atoms.

Up next: I’ve taken a few days off from reading, but I’ll start Edward P. Jones’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Known World later this week.