Cleopatra had four children known to history. The eldest, Cesarion, was the son of Julius Caesar. He disappeared around the time that Augustus conquerCleopatra had four children known to history. The eldest, Cesarion, was the son of Julius Caesar. He disappeared around the time that Augustus conquered Egypt, and historians presume that Augustus ordered his death because he had a more legitimate claim to be Caesar's heir than did Augustus himself. The other three were children of Marc Antony, who, Shakespeare omits to mention, was actually married to Cleopatra. The two elder were twins, Selene and Alexander. Selene is the heroine of this book. No likenesses of her endure; the bust above is of her mother. They had a younger brother named Ptolemy. After his victory over their parents, Augustus took them to Rome as young teenagers and paraded them in his triumphal march. He then gave them to his sister Octavia to raise. He later marred off Selene to a Juba II, whom he appointed king of Mauretania (roughly today's Morocco). Juba II had been educated in Rome and was a distinguished geographer and writer. Alexander and Ptolemy mainly drop from history after the triumph. Today's historians generally assume that Augustus had them killed because they could be nuclei of a conspiracy against him by Marc Anthony's clan, but there is a suggestion by a historian writing about 200 years later that they accompanied Selene to Africa with Juba II.
I usually write about the plot, characterization, and prose of a novel. But for a historical novel something else is necessary. I'll call it setting. Setting has various parts -: physical setting; the customs, ceremonies, infrastructure, clothing of the time; and psychological setting, the social structure and self-image in which people shaped themselves.
The prose of this novel is not prone to errors, but it is flat and uninteresting. It is prose that is successful by not taking chances. The force of words and images never makes you say to yourself, 'ah, that is what that means.'
Material and customary setting is meticulously painted. I'm no more than a knowledgeable layman about ancient Rome, but I know enough to see that the author has done her homework and displays it very effectively. The heroine travels early in the book from Alexandria to Rome where she gets a tourist-like chance to check everything out including an excursion to Capri. She arrives during the period when Augustus was converting Rome from the city of brick to the city of marble, as he self congratulatorily boasted, and the author does a fine job of showing the physical process. She's also up on what Romans wore, the various festivals, the formal relations of social classes.
The frame plot is a historical question: What will Augustus do with these young people? There are two sub plots: one is the sort of romantic intrigue typical of young adult novels, and the other is a highly visible slave rebellion in which several patrician characters a take a compassionate interest. They are reliably atractive sub-plots for young adult novel, but not Roman plots. In the end it turns out Selene at first hated Juba II due to misinformation, and then had a crush on him. We have lots of good documentation of the love life of upper class Romans of this period, from Catullus through Petronius and many others. Lots of people fell in love, but notably not with the people they had been married off to.
Slave rebellions were chronic during the Republic and early Empire. Spartacus', which preceded the time of this book, is only the best known. They were not something the patricians as a class felt sympathy for. The heroine and some of her friends feel weepy about the slaves and all poor people. Of course individual Romans may have felt that way, but this is not characteristic of the society.
Augustus rightfully feared conspiracies against his power and his life, but they came from the patricians, the senatorial class, not from the populace, as portrayed in this book. That's why he had Cesarion and Alexander killed, so they could not be the nuclei of patrician conspiracies.
Selene's thoughts and feelings center on the suffering caused her by Augustus killing her parents, sympathy for the oppressed, her love interests, and self-realization. She is a graphic artist and budding architect. The last three are the interests of privileged American teen-aged girls. As I understand classical Roman culture, a girl of her class would be interested in fulfilling her duty to her clan by marrying and running a household and in maintaining her reputation. I cannot stress enough the importance of reputation to Roman self-image. I remember reading Shadi Bartsch's The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, where she discusses what Socrates meant by the Greek words that we translate as, “Know thyself." Our current popular culture gives them a kind of Freudian dig; they mean something like we should have a deep understanding of our obscure inner nature. As I understand it, what Socrates meant and Roman people meant was: be able to see yourself as others see you. In a way the opposite.
So, from the viewpoint of portraying the self-image and consequent interests of Roman or Hellenistic characters, this book is bogus. But what does that matter? Is the job of a historical novel to produce characters that are true to the culture of their time rather than ours? Especially considering that empathizing with the self-image of an civilization so different from ours is hard both for the author and the reader. The book, instead, hands the intended reader an attractive perspective to survey externals.
But I think it does matter in this sense -: the more deeply we feel what personhood meant in a genuinely different society, the more we are broad and deep human beings. This book lets us look as through a window at history and does a good job of that, but we do not step through the glass.
This short book or essay was written by a long-time Silicon Valley professional who has toiled as a writer and a sales rep. In full disclosure, he is This short book or essay was written by a long-time Silicon Valley professional who has toiled as a writer and a sales rep. In full disclosure, he is acquaintance of mine of many years. The book is a good way to get a feel for attitudes people have towards work, sales, management, and star figures in Silicon Valley from an enthusiastic perspective.
The overt content of the book is mainly about three things: the author (The book is about 40% over before there are more than passing remarks about Steve Jobs), about Jobs himself from a mainly anecdotal point of view, and about the craft of sales rep. A subtext about how people evaluate one another and establish esteem runs through it.
His image of his audience is not always consistent. On the one hand he writes as if he were explaining Silicon Valley culture to the uninitiate:
"Sit in any meeting in any conference room in the Valley. I challenge you to fine more than two of seven participants who were born in the Untied States. We are a Valley of immigrants."
(Though many immigrants work there, I find this estimate something of an exaggeration.)
On the other hand he frequently names without explanation people and concepts that are locally famous but far from universally familiar: "C-level" (local slang for corporate executive)" "NeXT", (an unsuccessful computer company that Steve Jobs headed for a while) "J2ME" (a layer of software that lets a given program run on several devices), "John Warnock" (an inventor of display software and in the C-level of Adobe).
The author is and portrays himself as a French Canadian working-class immigrant. He graduated in French form the University of San Diego and has translated French literary works. He holds and MBA from Sana Clara and a JD, but has not practiced law. He was the sales rep from Adobe to NeXT and has often negotiated intellectual property rights.
His style is open, engaging, chatty, and energetic like a friend addressing a small group of companions.
His openness extends to confession, almost to self-abnegation
"To the best of my knowledge everything I am about to relate here is true. I was, at times, inebriated. I did not live through my life with the idea of recording it. Keep that in mind as you are either being cruel fair or both."
The idea of heroism is important. He modestly describes himself as not a hero and explicitly seeks at times the reader's esteem. But he has lots of heroes, most of them managers of hardware or software development. The only other one you are likely to have heard of is Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, Steve jobs most of all.
He reports his negotiations with Jobs over intellectual property rights as someone might report negotiating the sale of baseball bats to Hank Aaron.
But Jobs is a controversial figure. Many admire him as a great CEO and technical innovator. Others, I among them, see him as some one who promoted an abusive and over-driven work environment, some one who improved the fortunes of Apple computer and affected the style of marketing and of industrial design of smart phones, but had no long-term technical or broad social effect. For example, you sometimes hear him credited with making the smart phone popular or even with inventing it, but we would be looking at smart phones if he had spent his energies in other fields. The first thing that could be called a smart phone was marketed by Bell South in 1994, and Ericsson and Palm marketed basic smart phones at the beginning of the century. The idea was on a role. The smart phone in our hand might look somewhat different, and Apple might have disappeared as a company if not for Jobs, but from my perspective that is not so consequential as to make him a heroic figure.
Bedard catches this difference of perspective neatly in an exchange with his wife:
"I remember telling Caroline that we had to get a front-loading washer, because Steve thought they were cool....As Caroline has pointed out for years since, what the hell does Steve Jobs know about washing clothes and clothes washers?"
The later part of the book provides advice about how to work as a sales rep in Silicon Valley and much of it thrusts toward being open and natural with your clients as he is with his reader in this book....more
This is a good, little book. It centers entirely the development of a single character. Eilis (pronounced just a little more tightly in the mouth thanThis is a good, little book. It centers entirely the development of a single character. Eilis (pronounced just a little more tightly in the mouth than "Alice") has grown up in a medium-size town in Ireland in 1950's, where job opportunities are few. An American priest, who has been connived by her more expansive sister, propels her to Brooklyn. Her world in Brooklyn is enmeshed in Irish connections and seems more like 1935 than 1955. She lives in an Irish boarding, house, works in a shop managed by Irish, and chiefly attends Irish church functions. But she grows in independence and sophistication, learns bookkeeping, and drifts into love with an American man of Italian descent. Then the death of her charismatic sister calls her back home. There she drifts into romantic involvement with another likely husband. She has to decide whether to stay or return to her commitments in Brooklyn. Her weakly-felt independence turns out to be constrained by the gossip of despotic, small-town figures.
The heroine is very likable, moderately smart, and moderately pretty. Tóibín doesn't tell us these things. Rather he lets the reaction of other characters show them to us. It is an engaging way to develop our understanding of the character and is part of the story. The only other fully drawn characters are her mother and her sister, Rose. Her mother is in a constant state of muted anxiety because she wishes her daughter well in the world and at the same time wishes her to stay home. Her sister knows from before the beginning of the book that she has a condition that may kill her at any time, although we do not. Her condition frees her to lead a more interesting life, more impulsive, free of the stereotypes of work and marriage of the village. At first we believe that our heroine is in a sense living through her sister, but later we realize that her sister was hoping to live through her.
The author is omniscient, and we see into the thoughts and feelings of the heroine but not very deeply because they are neither deep nor intense. Remember, she is 19 and from a rather unsophisticated background. Her fully realized and detailed characterization is like a finely cut empty space filled only with pastel inference but clearly etched within a lush medium of other people’s acts and feelings. That medium is part of the warmth of the novel.
Keeping silent is important in this book. Characters tellingly do not utter their thoughts and often fail to articulate to themselves their own ideas and impulses. In her family, in her town, and in her restricted corner of Brooklyn many things ride on unspoken. A stereotypical American popular novel would see such reticence as a failure -: yet another family secrets novel. But it is not so simple. For example, when Eilis returns to her home town, she does not speak of her romantic involvements in Brooklyn and only slowly and reticently articulates them to herself, yet this process is how she finds her necessary path.
The prose is simple, carefully wrought, but not striking, like the story, like the heroine, always appropriate. Here is Eilis on her first day back in her home town:
Eilis wondered if her mother had always had this way of speaking that seemed to welcome no reply, and suddenly realized that she had seldom been alone with her before, she'd always had Rose to stand between her and her mother, Rose who would have plenty to say to both and questions to ask, comments to make, and opinions to offer. It must be hard for her mother too, she thought, and it would be best to wait a few days and see if her mother might become interested in her life in America enough for her slowly to introduce the subject of Tony, .......more
Despite it’s lively style, this book is oppressive. It has several threads, but it mainly explores the dismal consequences of the entertainment indus Despite it’s lively style, this book is oppressive. It has several threads, but it mainly explores the dismal consequences of the entertainment industry trying to impose copyright on the World Wide Web and on the world of digital communication generally.
Doctorow favors copyright in principle and supports strategies that would allow creators and the entertainment industry to make a reasonable amount of money but he is hostile to strategies that make information flow more difficult, more expensive, or more vulnerable to malware.
Along the way he offers advice for creators (musicians, movie makers, freelance writers, graphic artists, and the like) about how to prosper on the World Wide Web. His basic advice is: Become well known.
He is widely informed in relevant knowledge: about both the theory of computer operation and practical programming, about the ongoing development of the World Wide Web, about copyright law, about the policies and threatened policies of important nations and international agencies and treaties, and about the changing economics of the entertainment industry (which, of course, now includes Amazon and Apple and Google as well as Disney and, Warner Brothers, Bollywood, Nollywood, and Hachette).
Ironically this little book is a beautifully designed and printed example of a paper, hardcover book. The writing is brisk, clear, but glib at times. It is divided in to small sections and sometimes has the feel of threaded-together, short-form blogs, but it has an overall arch of argument. He’s a bit exhibitionistic and frequently talks about his personal experience as a writer and entrepreneur and good deeds he has done.
I urge anyone who wants to become informed in this area to read this book.
He explains various political censorship efforts as those in China, Iran, and North Korea. He discusses briefly their techniques, success and failures, and points out their similarity to censorship aimed a preserving copyright. All this he does without citing more than illustrative snippets of computer code.
The basic problem is that scattering copies is essential to digital communication. When you log into a web site and, say, look at a picture, something like this happens: You send a request, which is a sort of text, to a server somewhere where the image resides. In response, software peels off a copy of that image, which is reproduced and handed off in steps on its home server, and then passed to a node of the internet where one or more copies are made, and scattered to other nodes, where other copies are made and passed intricately toward you, until one arrives at your ISP, where a copy is made, or several in several steps, and transmitted to your computer, where one or more copies are made till one appears on your screen. The same process applies to a movie, a song, a computer game, and the text of this little essay. That’s what “Downloading “ means.
The entertainment industry marshals an army of engineers, expensive lawyers, and equally expensive lobbyists in a leaky effort to control copying and to make each of the entities that handles copies responsible for not leaking them. Of course ultimately we pay for this army.
But that is not the worst of the problem. Of course, the title is false, (It is an allusion to a famous dictum by the futurist guru Stewart Brand). Information lacks volition and doesn’t want anything. But by the nature of how computers work it is unfettered. In order to fetter it’s free flow, engineers and their bosses have to cripple the files, the programs that read them, and the machines that handle and display them.
They do this, on the level of glib generalization, by embedding in the image or in the machine bits of code invisible to you but visible to one another that make it impossible to handle the image freely. Generally, these are bits of code, that look to the human eye like, say, $sys$, though they may be much longer. They are called keys.
Of course, cleaver engineers and hackers locate the keys and remove them to create files everyone can read or machines that can read any files, and the engineers working for the entertainment industry make new and cleverer keys, and hackers removed them in an endless escalation, but that is not the worst problem.
Worst of all the crippled software and hardware is vulnerable to spyware and malware. Doctorow gives this example:
In 2005 Sony shipped 6 million audio CD's loaded with a secret rootkit that covertly installed itself when you inserted one of these CD's into your computer. Once your computer had been compromised, any file or process that began with "$sys$" was invisible. The Sony toolkit was used to cloak a program that watched for, and then killed, attempts to copy music off audio CD's ... it looked like you computer had suddenly developed a mysterious bug that stopped CD ripping software from running.... But it didn't stop there. Once there were millions of computers in the wild that couldn't see files that started with "$sys$," virus writers started to add "$sys$" to the names of their programs..."
Doctorow does not quite say, but implies strongly that the massive efforts to cripple copying are responsible for a substantial part of the vulnerability of software to viruses.
Nor does he hold back from scathing agencies like NSA. Here is another example:
NIST (The National Institute for Standards) was forced to recall one of its cryptographic standards after it became apparent that the NSA had infiltrated its process and deliberately weakened the standard - an act akin to deliberately ensuring that the standard for electrical wiring was faulty so that you could start house fires in the homes of people you wanted to smoke out during an armed standoff.
Doctorow accepts the principle of copyright and proposes a compromise based on something called a blanket license, or similar arrangements. Essentially it is a method for paying money into a collective pool of copyrights and statistically allocating it to the copyright holders. DJ's are allowed to play songs on the radio (Remember radio?) because of such an arrangement. There are many technical and legal difficulties, which he discusses.
From a time before this technology arose, I myself never accepted the principle of copyright. It seems to me, as has often been said, copyright is theft. It is theft from the commons as sure as is The Lord of the Manor fencing off the common pasture of the village to run his sheep only. It is theft for the simple reason that if I sell you an apple or a painting or a manufacturing device, at then end of the transaction you have and apple or machine tool or whatever and I do not. If I tell you a story or tell you how to do something, at the end of the transaction we both have it. In this way information differs from property as named by Proudhon in his original phrase, "property is theft."
Doctorow does not explain temp files, but perhaps that’s a red herring. He omits mention of 3-D printing, but the issues seem to me essentially the same except for the initial step of making an image of an object.
Be my perspective what it may, I believe that by its nature digital communication has killed copyright. It is meaningless in the world of computer communication. But the entertainment industry is making a massive and destructive effort to give it zombie life, and it is eating our brains.
You may say that the entertainment industry could not exist as we know it without copyright. Tough shit.
You may ask how creators are to earn their bread. Creators have been surviving and occasionally prospering since long before the entertainment industry, since long before copyright. Shakespeare did not have copyright (He did have a faint precursor called the Stationers Register, but he became modestly wealthy mostly by owning stock in his acting company). Dante did not have copyright. Archimedes did not have copyright. Galileo did not have copyright. The authors of the Bible did not have copyright. In the long view of recorded history creators have mostly earned their bread through patrons. The patronage system had serious problems and opportunities for abuse of creators, but it seems to me no worse than what is going down now. Furthermore, as Doctorow explains, the World Wide Web provides once unimagined ways for creators to reach audiences....more
I read this book, mostly aloud, sometimes listening to it aloud, in the Bartlett translation, partly from paper copies, partly for the Kindle edition.I read this book, mostly aloud, sometimes listening to it aloud, in the Bartlett translation, partly from paper copies, partly for the Kindle edition.
First question: what does this book have to do with Hitler’s Mein Kamp? The titles are even more alike in Norwegian. The two books have a general resemblance in that both portray the author’s struggle, but Hitler’s struggle is mainly expressed through politics and doctrine whereas Knausgård’s is mainly in literature and personal relations. Mein Kamp devotes part of its first chapter to Hitler’s childhood and includes serious conflicts with his father. But his father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 13. Politics crops up only occasionally in My Struggle in connection with characters' allegiance to one or another of the political movements of contemporary Norway.
Second, is this a novel? Or does it matter? And if so, or if not, why? Knausgård asserts that everything in it is true. He adds that he does not have a particularly good memory, that this rush of material appeared only when he set out to write something about his father; it just came out, and we read it unedited except for some details in the first part that were changed in the routine way of publishing, or under pressure, among other things, from lawsuits. He asserts that, though it is not made up, it is a novel. It is constructed like a novel. That is, his report on his struggle is highly selective and reordered and written in the conventional style of contemporary realistic fiction. He does not narrate the whole of his life, he does not present it in chronological order, and he omits substantial parts of his life. The same could be said of most memoirs. For example he mentions but omits any stories about his second marriage. He begins with an occasion when his father humiliated him as an eight-year old, continues to his life around the time the birth of his first child by his second wife, then portrays incidents in his early teen-aged years, then in his middle childhood years, and so on to the last volume, which is set in his 18th year. All along he freely interpolates flashbacks.
Besides, there is no such thing as memory that records the past in the sense that a surveillance camera preserves the actions that take place before it year after year making a tape that some one might edit.
Memory, and some contemporary lab research supports this, seems to me like a large garden. Only the plants we, consciously or unconsciously, tend flourish there. In tending them we alter them. Stories or images are either modified or forgotten. For example, all find ourselves with childhood memories of events we are unsure we experienced-; we may only have heard about them from others sufficiently to construct our own images. We live in a building made of memories, and as we live in it we constantly reconstruct it. So, if you stay in an Italian hotel said to have been a nunnery in 1200, the concierge may be able to point to you that a particular feature was built in 1400 or the spot where something happened in 1568, but we have no such concierge, or no reliable one at any rate. Perhaps there are some exceptions in what Proust called involuntary memories.
Such is the process from which Knausgård’s manuscript poured fourth. Such is the building he reconstructed with the reliability and unreliability of our own. It would be interesting to review evidence like the memories of other witnesses as they appear in he lawsuits.
Calling it a memoir or a novel, then, really is only a question of labeling. We have been offered a credible tale either way.
Some say that this book has no plot. In the step-leading-to-step sense that an Agatha Christie or the Count of Monte Cristo has a plot, that’s true, but in the wide sense of plot, in the sense Moby Dick has the plot of Ahab’s struggle for vengeance on the whale, or that Ana Karenina has the plot of how Anna is to deal with her marriage, or A la Recherche du Temps Perdue has the plot of Marcel’s struggle to recapture the past -; in that wide sense, it has a plot. That is why it is called My Struggle. The struggle is to escape the oppression of his abusive father. In the course of his life this struggle takes various forms, among others: as a child to get out of the house and play with friends or go to school, later (not in the sequence of presentation in the book) to get laid, or to understand and even get on with his father, or to become a sort of literary rock star, later to be a good father. The struggle wrings shame out of the story. Awareness of shame surfaces only occasionally in the 3600 pages, but it hangs always in the background. It arises from the author’s breach of Scandinavian reticence, from his father's constant shaming him as a child, and from the sometimes disgusting details of his father's later life and death. Knausgård has spoken of this novel as purging him, and it seems that it is shame from which he is purged, or would be.
Don’t get the impression, however, that this is a dower or oppressive read. It is not. Liveliness and anticipation animate it with a feeling of Knausgård’s openness to experience and willingness to take things on. It jibes in that way with his personal impression, which is extraordinarily open, frank, and present.
There are several fully realized characters, mostly associated with family. His father, his mother, his brother, his grandparents, his second wife, even his oldest child, who is about four the last time we see her. Characterization is partly through description of action, partly through dialogue, and partly through attribution of taste. Clothes are as meticulously and frequently described as in stereotypical chick lit, and preferences for rock bands and soccer clubs often appear. But this is not a-show-don’t-tell novel, for the most important part of characterization is the protagonists’ description of people. In the case of characters who appear at widely different times, the protagonist's descriptions of them change. But this is not an author teasing us with an “unreliable narrator”; rather it realistically reflects how we see people differently as we mature.
The protagonist analyses characters in the sense of thoughtfully describing them, but avoids analysis in the psychodynamic sense. We may suppose that Knausgård’s desperation comes from his treatment at the hands of his father, but he seldom makes that sort of supposition.
Here, for example, he is describing his children in order of age, youngest first: “Their character traits, which slowly began to reveal themselves after only a few weeks, have never changed either, and so different are they inside each of them that it is difficult to imagine the conditions we provide for them, through our behavior and ways of being, have any decisive significance. John has a mild, friendly temperament, loves his sisters, planes, trains, and buses. Heidi is an extrovert and talks to everyone she meets, she’s obsessed with shoes and clothes, wants to wear only dresses, and is at ease with her little body, such as when she stood naked in front of the swimming pool mirror and said to Linda, “Mommy, look what a nice bottom I’ve got!” She hates being reprimanded; if you raise your voice to her she turns away and starts crying. Vanja, on the other hand, gives as good as she gets, has quite a temper, a strong will, is sensitive, and gets on easily with people. She has a good memory, knows by heart most of the books we read to her as well as lines in the films we see. She has a sense of humor and is always making us laugh when we […]” Excerpt From: Karl Ove Knausgård & Don Bartlett. “My Struggle: Book 2.” iBookshttps://itun.es/us/0e-1L.l
The excerpt above is a fair sample of his prose as it appears in this translation. It’s good, but unremarkable. It is seldom awkward, and seldom thrilling. On rare occasions he waxes philosophical, for instance a discussion of Heidegger or the reflections on death that open the book.
The detail is sometimes tedious. He devotes c. 150 pages to his 14-year-old efforts to secretly (from his father and others) acquire a couple of cases of beer and get drunk at a party. It’s pretty boring at times. He devotes about 100 pages to himself, his wife, and children at a preschool party. His account is spot on, but, again, boring at times despite it’s exactness. If he described his whole life up until his late 30's in such detail, he would still be writing.
Yet in the long run, and it is long, the detail is what engages us. In the long run you find yourself thinking about Knausgård as a friend, some one you know as your own memories, some one with whom you can compare your life in a way that fictional characters can seldom support.
My Struggle is some times compared to A la Recherche du Temps Perdue. There are many differences. Whereas Karl Ove’s prose is plain but effective; Marcel’s is ornate, sometimes obscure, and often thrilling; whereas Marcel is trying to recapture his childhood; Karl Ove is trying to escape his. Whereas Karl Ove treats his family with carful realism, Marcel tends to idealize his; whereas Karl Ove worries about being trapped, Marcel suffers excruciating separation anxiety; whereas Karl Ove is forthcoming about characters, Marcel tends to make successive discoveries, often disreputable, like a detective; whereas Karl Ove’s world is narrowly middle class or occasionally working class, Marcel is preoccupied with High Society; whereas Marcel is trying to recaptured the past, Karl Ove, although he notices and sometimes reflects on the passage of time, lives in the present; whereas A la recherche du temps perdue ends with Marcel looking anxiously back, My Struggle ends with Karl Ove entering adulthood and eagerly looking forward.
From about 90 BC until about 30 BC, the Roman Republic suffered from Civil Wars. They were complicated. In general they were between aristocrats, who From about 90 BC until about 30 BC, the Roman Republic suffered from Civil Wars. They were complicated. In general they were between aristocrats, who controlled the Senate, and plebeians, who controlled other political offices, but in practice they were often between generals, caudillos, who maintained private armies only nominally allied with either class and they involved many shifting alliances and betrayals among leaders and clans. Octavius Caesar, the grandnephew and protégé of Julius Caesar, the most famous of these generals, ended these civil wars with his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 BC. He also ended the Republic and made Rome an Empire, which was free from major civil wars for about 200 years thereafter. Thus did he acquire the title Augustus. This is an epistilatory novel based on the life of Augustus and on his times.
Historiography was just getting started in the West, and, inspired by Greek historians, this period is one of the first in human history to be at least moderately documented. Several histories by eloquent and diligent historians survive, but they are far from perfect. Some of them wrote long after the event, some of the histories are partially lost, and of course the historians have their various biases. Augustus, the person, is notoriously hard to pin down. Shakespeare in his plays Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra, working from the Greek historian Plutarch, portrays him as merely coldl and power-hungry except for his affection for his sister. Other historians portray him as dutifully patriotic, the savior of his country, and the bringer of peace.
Like Napoleon, Augustus was noted for his stare. Several portrait sculptures survived from his lifetime, but it is hard to learn from them. Besides a tendency to show him as stereotypically heroic, Roman sculpture was embellished with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay that have worn away, so we are left with inscrutable stares. But are they those of Augustus?
This is the author's fourth and last novel. In his illuminating introduction Daniel Mendelsohn points out that the heroes of each the first three are of no political stature and reflect how the forces of life shape men of very modest accomplishment rather than the hero shaping his life. Two are set in the author's lifetime and one in the 19th-century American frontier. Each has autobiographical overtones. So it is surprising that for his fourth novel he turned to Roman history and a very powerful man.
Williams both exploits and struggles with the historical ambiguity of Augustus' character by choosing to write an epistolary novel. We hear about him from the point of view of several generals, several close friends including the poets Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, from both of his wives, from his most important mistress, from his beloved only child Julia, from spies working both for and against him, from several intellectual hangers on, not to mention from Julius Caesar, and Augustus himself. A wide and varied canvass. Williams does a fine job writing in these various voices. He carefully delineates their biases and somewhat less carefully their styles. Yet for me a sense of foreignness is lacking. I'm an amateur in Roman culture, but I feel that for all their historical standing, the Romans had a very different sense of self than we have, more based on the intersection of face and domination, to put it glibly. This foreignness does not fully emerge through Williams' letter writers. One thing that emerges from these letters is the importance of friendship to William's version of Augustus. In the beginning we see him as a student with a group of close friends. Gradually in the course of his life one of these friends betrays him and others die. It is as if in each betrayal or death he loses part of himself. Augustus' own letters appear only at the very beginning of his career and to the end.
An epistilatory novel demands flexible prose more than anything else, and Williams prose is consistently flexible and effective.
Surprisingly for the man who emerged triumphant from a risky struggle and ruled the Mediterranean world for most of his lifetime (He died in 14 AD.), as Mendelsohn points out, this novel is like Williams' other novels in showing how the struggle with life shapes the hero, rather than the other way around. Augustus in this novel did it not set out to become the ruler of Rome but to avenge the death of his beloved grand uncle Julius Caesar and to survive. But victories lead to obligations until he can only survive by defeating Anthony and Cleopatra.
The novel falls into two halves. The first, though it is far from a military history, portrays Augustus and his associates in the period of his rise to power. Marriages arranged for the purpose of family alliances are almost as important as battles, and Augustus' friend. and in effect prime minister, Maecenas, known to history as a patron of the arts, appears here mostly as a match maker. The second half portrays his intimate world and its public reflection during his life as emperor. It largely neglects Augustus' extension of the empire, vast public works, and establishment of a bureaucracy that served the empire well for hundreds of years. It does display his personally modest style of living.
Williams devotes much of the second part of the novel to Augustus' relations with his daughter and only child, Julia. Her letters take up more pages than any other correspondent. She comes off as something of a protofeminist, seeking self-realization within the constrained role of upper-class Roman women. In her letters Williams fails most, for me, to give a true feeling of Roman self-image. Augustus’ fondness for her is mentioned in the histories and dwelt on by Williams. But, for political reasons he married her off to three men, for two of whom she was dutifully indifferent, the third she hated, and to whom she bore in total seven children.
Around 18 BC Augustus promulgated a series of laws promoting what we might call family values, with only mixed success as is witnessed by Ovid's witty and explicit handbook, The Art of Love. In an atmosphere of erotic scandals and assassination conspiracies in 2 BC Augustus exiled Julia to a small barren island off the coast of southern Italy. Since then there has been endless speculation about his motives; her possible involvement with Ovid lends notoriety. Williams has a theory. He portrays it movingly, and it is as good as any other.
The final letter from Augustus, by this time in ill health and surveying the increasing emptiness of his life, is vivid and eloquent as is the last letter in retrospect from his physician. But something remains missing in the decades when we read only other people's thoughts. I came away feeling I had read a rich and moving novel, but not that I had seen into the fears or longings of Augustus....more
I listened to this novel in the excellent reading by George Guidall of Julie Rose's translation. A little over 60 hours, or four and a half days. For I listened to this novel in the excellent reading by George Guidall of Julie Rose's translation. A little over 60 hours, or four and a half days. For quotations and general double checking I used the translation by Isabel F. Hapgood provided by project Gutenberg.
Hugo, who is nothing if not articulate about what he believes are his goals and meaning in this novel, declares that it is about the moral redemption of the principal character, who, as I'm sure most of you know, begins as a petty thief condemned to prison galleys, and c. 1500 pages later rises to ever higher moral nobility until he dies of it, and after.
That's true, but there are other important subjects in this vast work. One is an assertion of the Christian moral nature of the world, although he is opposed to the institution of the Catholic Church. Another is a human exploration of Paris. Another is the process of France's digestion of the French Revolution and of Napoleon. Another is the exposition of how decision-making takes place. Another is the exploration of youth versus age. Another is his conviction that the author's views on anything at all are worth passing on to the reader. Most fundamental is his interest in the engagement of opposites.
A tight plot and characters that are attractive and clearly either good or bad are the mainstays of current popular fiction, as they were then, and limit the range and subtlety of a book. Hugo makes up for that limitation by his prose, what he writes about, and how he writes about it.
Hugo’s prose is often described as ponderous, and it certainly can be. But in the long haul it is varied and flexible. It is like a large-scale organ with it’s ponderous pipes, it melodious pipes, it's shrill, at times racy, at times witty pipes, etc. Indeed one of the pleasures of this book is appreciating the resources of Hugo's style. Here's a guy who can describe the whole world, or the tiniest corner of Paris, with equal aptness.
The book is highly digressive, like Tristram Shandy. An example often cited is the 2 1/2 hour description of the battle of Waterloo. A very minor incident in the battle is a cornerstone of the plot, but he could have delivered that in five minutes. He describes the battle in some detail including Napoleon’s debates with himself on strategy, and why, in Hugo’s view, he lost.
But, unlike Tristram Shandy, plot drives this novel. One thing leads to another in intricate, supple, and tightly contrived ways. There is a problem. The stereotype these days is that each author gets to have one unlikely coincidence, the McGuffin. The plot of Les Miserables depends on one unlikely coincidence following another like a pack train; there are hundreds. It begins to feel as if Hugo had his own special McGuffin: a free pass to unbounded unlikely coincidence. That usage reflects his idea that we are in the hands of fate, that is God.
Hugo likes to describe characters in ways that will identify them as attractive or unattractive to the reader . His attractive characters are usually generous, friendly, and good looking; his unattractive characters are selfish, surely, and plain. The social role of the character is always a cornerstone of his or her depiction. You do not meet characters, as we often meet in contemporary novels, who are a bundle of characteristics who happen to have a social role as a kind day job. Jean Valjean is first of all a criminal; Javert is first of all a detective; Cosette is first of all a marriageable girl etc.. It requires the length of the novel to move Valjean out of the criminal category. His self-acknowledgment that he can no longer fulfill the role of detective drives Javert to suicide.
Characterisation is in certain respects full, and in certain respects shallow. It is full with respect to establishing the characters’ position on the ladder of good and evil. The ladder has many rungs but goes only up or down. Of the moral standing of men he sees as related to the French revolution, he writes:
"Below John Huss, there is Luther; below Luther, there is Descartes; below Descartes, there is Voltaire; below Voltaire, there is Condorcet; below Condorcet, there is Robespierre; below Robespierre, there is Marat; below Marat there is Babeuf. And so it goes on. Lower down, confusedly, at the limit which separates the indistinct from the invisible, one perceives other gloomy men, who perhaps do not exist as yet. ……"
It is also full in the sense of describing the process of decision-making in dramatic detail. This decision-making portrays minds engaged in internal rhetorical debate. For those of us who live after a hundred years of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, it seems a little stiff and awfully rational, but it is rich in vigorous and detail.
Hugo goes to considerable trouble to portray youth an age. He delights in the garrulousness of quirky old men; old women get scant attention. He delights in the naïve enthusiasm of youth; pretty young women get lots of attention. But you do not come out of this book with the gut feeling that you know them personally. What will the marriage of the ingénue couple (Cossette and Marius) be like in 20 years? We don’t even wonder. We know their societal niche and we know their moral standing instead.
Hugo expects a reader well read in French and classical history. He casually refers us to our familiarity with the Greek biographer Plutarch and the Roman historians Livy and Tacitus, among others. Interestingly he never cites Montagne; perhaps the mayor of Bordeaux was too skeptical for him. The anecdote that Chou En-Lie once remarked to Nixon (or was it to Kissinger) that it was too soon to know if the French revolution has been successful is probably a legend, but it’s endurance reveals an unmythical concern. The French, and with them the world, continue to try to come to terms with events and issues arising from the overthrow of the Ancien Régime and to discover proper means of dealing with them. Besides Chou En-Lie, Pol Pot, & Deng Xiaoping, among many others, studied in Paris in forming their concept of revolution and governance. Hugo, who several times says Paris represents the world, was only concerned with France, which went though a process of digesting the revolution that is comparable in intricacy and painfulness to a polity digesting itself. The period of the action is 1815 - 1832, but by frequent flashbacks, explanations, and references the book engages with history from the beginning of the French revolution (1789). In those decades France was governed or ungoverned successively by absolute monarchy, a period of chaos, a couple of different imperious committees, an emperor, absolute monarchy again, and constitutional monarchy and at all times by passionate and deadly factionalism. In those years for anyone with anything to loose which side you were on was a constant source of identity and anxiety. The family of Marius, the ingénue hero, whose experiences in the unrest of 1832 resemble those of Hugo, embodies the identifications and tensions. His grandfather is a passionate monarchist, his father an equally passionate Bonapartist. He has been raised by his grandfather to hate his father, but gradually comes to respect him and absorb his political position. This is the process of debate over governance embodied in the lives and feelings of characters. One of the most moving actual verbal debates comes between the bishop of Digne and a former member of the convention that overthrew Louis XVI (un conventionnel). The bishop was appointed by Napoleon, almost by chance, that is fate, that is God. He is sort of an anti-clerical clergyman, living simply and piously in the mountain village of his bishopric, giving his salary mostly to the poor, etc. Acts of empathy and generosity by the bishop save Jean Valjean from rearrest and set him on the path of virtue. In the course of his pastoral care he seeks out a conventioneer, as they were called, who is an atheist and a republican living as a hermit in a period of merciless reaction. The conventioneer is a man of great wisdom and dignity who accepts his immanent death. They debate their respective faiths. Hugo is evenhanded; he is interested in portraying the debate, not in settling it, and it remains unresolved with each man thoughtfully moved. First, as is typical of serious characters, the bishop debates with himself: "Nevertheless, the Bishop meditated on the subject, and from time to time he gazed at the horizon at a point where a clump of trees marked the valley of the former member of the Convention, and he said, "There is a soul yonder which is lonely." And he added, deep in his own mind, "I owe him a visit." But, let us avow it, this idea, which seemed natural at the first blush, appeared to him after a moment's reflection, as strange, impossible, and almost repulsive. For, at bottom, he shared the general impression, and the old member of the Convention inspired him, without his being clearly conscious of the fact himself, with that sentiment which borders on hate, and which is so well expressed by the word 'estrangement'. Still, should the scab of the sheep cause the shepherd to recoil? No. But what a sheep! The good Bishop was perplexed. Sometimes he set out in that direction; then he returned."
The bishop journeys to the hut of the conventioneer, and they debate the revolution. For a long time they trade citation of atrocities, the bishop citing the atrocities of the revolution and the conventioneer those of the Ancien Régime. The conventioneer sums up: "In any case, and in spite of whatever may be said, the French Revolution is the most important step of the human race since the advent of Christ.... The French Revolution had its reasons for existence; its wrath will be absolved by the future; its result is the world made better. From its most terrible blows there comes forth a caress for the human race. ... Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over, this fact is recognized,--that the human race has been treated harshly, but that it has progressed."
The bishop respectfully does not assent.
The title is notoriously hard to translate. It means something like the poor or the unfortunate or the outsiders. It implies that the subject of the book is the suffering of people whom society does not nurture, who dwell outside the empathy of the comfortable and well off. Hugo is criticising people's lack of compassion and charity rather than society's very structure. Hugo stresses that the lot of the poor could be improved by education, but beyond that what he mainly does is admonished the rich to be nicer to the poor, rather than imagining a way to eliminate the richness and poorness. Note that in his hierarchical list of the intellectual fathers of the revolution, he puts Baboef at the bottom. Baboef was the only one of the prominent revolutionaries who proposed concrete plans for removing hierarchy from society in general....more
This is a masterpiece of plotting based on the interaction of characters and character discrimination. There are about 12 major characters in this lonThis is a masterpiece of plotting based on the interaction of characters and character discrimination. There are about 12 major characters in this long book, around 450,000 words, and you are never confused, for one reason because Trollope introduces each person one by one in short chapters.
The central plot is applicable to our time when foolish knaves sell impossible mortgages to knavish fools; when “financiers” package the shaky mortgages as “securities”; and the London bankers collude at teatime on Facebook to fix the LIBOR rate. It is based on a murky stock promotion of which we never understand the details. What we understand is how interaction of characters, usually in pairs, sometimes in triplets, moves the action and in some cases alters the movers.
What you think about when you think about this book is the characters. The most interesting are: First, Augustus Melmotte, a "financier" of murky background who dazzles London by flashing wealth, perhaps more than he really has, founds a Ponzi scheme worthy of Bernie Nadoff, and even gets himself elected to Parliament, before his ultimate fall. He is charismatic and a bad guy. He has no notion of honesty and beats his daughter. Yet he is a sort of tragic hero, and his downfall is moving and telling. Trollope even grants him a helping of tragic insight:
“He had not far to go round through Berkeley Square into Burton Street but he stood for a few moments looking up at the bright stars. If he could be there, in one of those unknown distant worlds, with all his present intellect and none of his present burdens, he would, he thought, do better than he had done here on earth. If he could even now put himself down nameless, fameless, and without possessions in some distant corner of the world, he could, he thought, do better. But he was Augustus Melmotte, and he must bear his burdens, whatever they were, to the end.”
Second, Mrs. Hurdle, an American widow, except her husband is not actually dead, although she has shot and killrd another man. She is beautiful, sensitive, passionate, wealthy on her own initiative, and, in the crises we witness in the book, highly moral. Trollope makes clear that she and another major character, Paul Montague, a priggish vacillating Englishmen, have been physically lovers in the past when he was traveling in America. This is not the shy, 2-dimensional flower of so many 19th century English novels. In a way she is Henry James’ free-spirited American girl carried far beyond what James would care to undertake.
Third is Marie Melmotte, the daughter of Augustus Melmotte, who begins the novel by falling in love with a handsome ne'er-do-well because she is enchanted by stereotypes from novels. She progresses through several fiancés or near-fiancés including an English Lord, and evolves to choosing a husband from a position of cynicism but not malice.
Most of the action of the book does involve the marriage plot, but the outcomes are complex and ambiguous. Unlike in, say Jane Austen, it is thinkable for women to choose other careers than marriage. Nor does Trollope hand out good and bad marriages simply as a reward for being moral or immoral characters. The relentlessly bad mother, Lady Carbury, probably gets what is for her the best marriage. Paul Montague's chooses a bland and timid ingénue over the complex and passionate Mrs. Hurdle. They will settle in the country with her obsessive one-time admirer living a cottage in the back. Not a happy prospect. This novel explores ant-Semitism. It was published in 1875, a time of change in the standing of Jews in English society. For one thing Disraeli was Prime Minister. A fully developed secondary character has reached the age of 30 and is losing in the marriage game. She chooses to marry a banker who is 20 years older than she is, fat, ugly, a Jew, and the most decent human being in the book. Her immediate family reacts like Nazi’s. Her fiancé is also a of foil for Marie Melmotte first admirer, Sir Felix, who is wellborn, handsome, youthful, but an utterly worthless drunk and compulsive gambler. So Trollope is telling us something about his attitude towards prejudice against Jews. But he also accepts without comment the general knee-jerk prejudice that was of course commonplace in his time. I have seen it stated by critics that Melmotte himself is Jewish, and characters sometimes assume that. His pitiful wife (not Marie’s mother) certainly is. But I found no clear-cut statement to that effect in the text; the most unambiguous description of his origin is that he was Irish-American and grew up in New York. Another prejudice is against Americans. Trollope's prose is always sound, clear, readable, and supple but is never thrilling in sustained passages. Trollope is a master of summarizing complex human situations, both in decisive paragraphs and in telling bon mots. There are paragraph-long summaries of characters’ previous lives that could serve as scenarios for whole novels by Henry James, and on which David Foster Wallace or Karl Ove Nausgaard could build a career. For example this summary of the situation in the Carbury family at the beginning of the book. Note that the situation has developed through the interaction of three characters:
“Sir Felix was then 25, had been in a fashionable regiment for four years, had already sold out, and, to own the truth at once, had altogether wasted the property which his father had left him. So much the mother knew, – and knew therefore that with her limited income she must maintain not only herself and daughter, but also the Baronet. She did not know, however the amount of the Baronet’s obligations; – nor, indeed, did he, or anyone else. A baronet, holding a commission in the guards, and known to have had a fortune left by him left him by his father, may go very far in getting into debt; and Sir Felix had made full use of his privileges. His life had been in every way bad. He had become a burden on his mother so heavy, – and on his sister also, – that their lives had become one of unavoidable embarrassments. But not for a moment had either of them ever quarreled with it. Henrietta had been taught by the conduct of both father and mother that every vice might be forgiven in a man and in a son, though every virtue was expected from a woman, and especially from a daughter. The lesson had come to her so early in life that she had learned it without the feeling of any grievance. She lamented her brother’s evil conduct as it affected him, but she pardoned it all together as it affected herself. That all her interests in life should be made subservient to him was natural to her; and when she found that her little comforts were discontinued, and her moderate expenses curtailed, because he, having eaten up all that was his own, was now eating up also all that was his mother's, she never complained. Henrietta had been taught to think that men of that rank of life in which she had been born always did eat up everything.” One of Lady Carbury’s vices is bad writing. She is the author of a dreadful piece of popular history called Criminal Queens. Her efforts to publish and promote it show that the vices of her publishing world, like her financial world, are much like those of our own. Where Trollope's prose really shines is in bon mots. The little word or phrase that cunningly sounds the depths of what's before us. Here is a little summary of Lady Carbury’s thoughts rejecting someone's proposal of marriage: "But mixed with her other feelings there was a tenderness which brought back some memory of her distant youth, and almost made her weak. That a man, -–such a man, – should offer to take half her burdens, and to confer upon her half his blessing! What an idiot! What a God! She had looked upon the man as all intellect, alloyed perhaps by some passionless remnants of the vices of his youth; and now she found that he not only had a human heart in his bosom, but a heart that she could touch. How wonderfully sweet! How infinitely small!” It is that last, small word "small" that nails so much about both Lady Carbury and her admirer and stimulates and shapes our feelings about them. There is a subplot that involves a country lass and her bumpkin admirer. It's loosely related to the main action and is amusing, but it constantly reminded me of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, which is both a kind of complement, and a kind of distraction. Trollope's energetic but orderly ability to generate plotting for his characters sometimes gets a bit tedious. There is a whole sub subplot of the relations between an Anglican bishop and a Catholic priest that is really unnecessary and never goes anywhere. After Melmotte’s, fall, Trollope spends probably another 50,000 words tying up loose ends. Tying up loose sends is satisfying, but maybe not every i in every marriage contract needs to be dotted.
A note on punctuation: I read the free version that comes from the Apple Store, which I assume, partly from some of the errors that electronic scansion is prone to, is an unedited presentation of the original text. Punctuation is interesting. It is filled with dashes, almost a sort of prose version of Emily Dickinson, the dashes are frequently proceeded or followed by semicolons, commas, or colons. On the other hand, there are many occasions where we would expect a carefully punctuated text to have commas, such as examples or introductory adverbial phrases of time, where they are lacking....more
The Flight of the Maidens recounts the summer of three young women, friends in a small town in Yorkshire, after each has received a generous and prestThe Flight of the Maidens recounts the summer of three young women, friends in a small town in Yorkshire, after each has received a generous and prestigious scholarship to a different university. The basic theme of the book is the process of separation of daughters from their family. It is 1946, and Britain is just beginning to recover from the Second World War. Gardam provides each of her heroines with a different struggle. One, Hetty, is deeply enmeshed with her mother and suffers an attendant obsessive and painful separation process on both sides. Una has middling relation to her somewhat distant and eccentric mother and is progressing nicely. Lieselotte is a Kindertransporte child, that is her Jewish parents sent her from Germany to England for safety in 1939. Presumably, they have died, but at least at the beginning of the book they are absent even from Lieselotte's memory. She lives at first in a kind of stunned forgetfulness in a silent Quaker household.
The three girls and Hetty's mother and father are fully drawn, effective characters. Two of the threads are peopled by some exotic and eccentric figures who might have wandered in from Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Wodehouse. They are viable in their context, which is idle wealth.
No fighting is described in this book, but both the First and Second World War lie with a chilly hand. Una's father, a doctor, has killed himself as a result of what we would now call posttraumatic stress syndrome. Hetty's father suffers from similar psychological war damage, more of him later.
Besides Lieselotte's terrible story, the aftereffects of the Second World War remain in ration books, ruined buildings, and memories of friends killed in bombing raids.
In the middle section, Lieselotte takes long, obsessive walks through the ruin-scape of bombed out London that recalled for me Martha Quests' similar walks in Lessing’s The Children of Violence Series. Another daughter trying to separate.
It is also a story of daughters with absent fathers. Lieselotte of course, but note that only her father is mentioned, her mother never appears even in her memory. Una's father is a suicide. Hetty's father is present but damaged. Although an Oxford graduate, the only other character within scenting distance of the university, he works as a gravedigger and wanders through the town rather aimlessly looking in from the outside. In that sense, he is absent. But he is also the one who gives straight answers to Hetty when she asks questions, a relief for her from her mother's responses are always distorted by her intense fantasies about her relation with her daughter.
In terms of style, the book falls into three parts. The first part, before the maidens leave their homes, begins like any realistic novel, except with wittier characters and writing and better descriptions than most. This is very sharp writing. Each character is witty in a way appropriate to her particular personality.
It shifts into a period when the maidens are away from home in which they have adventures that rather resemble fairy tales. The fairytale quality rings true because, particularly for young women, entering the world maybe like entering the dangerous land of the skriker. It returns to realism toward the end as problems pile up and are resolved.
The characters in this book are sufficiently complex and vividly draw that you think about them rather as you might think about people you know. How successfully will these young women progress as autonomous individuals in the rest of their lives? I'm dubious about Lieselotte and Hetty. I feel the terrible stress on Lieselotte about who she is will leave her forever tense about how other people see her. I feel Hetty's wrenching struggle with her mother will always grip her. It's to the book's credit that I think about such things. ...more
The plot keeps you wondering from one page to the next, but in the end it's hard to figure out what happened. The prose is competent but choppy and ocThe plot keeps you wondering from one page to the next, but in the end it's hard to figure out what happened. The prose is competent but choppy and occasionally includes bright figures of speech. The characterization is based on vivid physical images, but the characters are not fully human. The dialogue tends to be more informative than interesting, but is carefully adapted fit each each character.
The setting is San Francisco of 90 years ago, which is vividly described in physical detail. You learn a lot about streets, restaurants, and the inside of certain hotels. (One of the restaurants, John's Grill, is still operating, based largely on its appearance in the novel, and mostly for tourists. It's pretty good.) If you don't know, the McGuffin is that an extremely valuable gilded and bejeweled bird was created in the Middle Ages. It has disappeared in the random passage of history, and a group of colorful characters now pursue it with greedy obsession and without conscience.
The main interest of the book lies in a dance of deception between two sociopaths. The heroine/villain, Bridgid O’Shaughnessy, never speaks a true word, and the detective, Sam Spade, is only occasionally honest, but talks less and often practices obfuscation merely by manipulating his facial expression.
Characterization is a sort of Reductio ad absurdum of the doctrine that became popular decades later in many creative writing classes, "show, don't tell.” There are only occasional brief references to mental processes, mainly of the obese brid-seaker, Mr. Guttmann. Guttmann’s fat face is several times described in grotesque, Dickensian detail. It is not clear if these descriptions are intended to be comic or not. The tightly hobbled expression of inner life forces Hammett to provide lengthy self-descriptions by Bridget O'Shaughnessy, which amount a series of mutually contradictory soliloquies, and to obsessive description of facial expressions, gestures, and body language. Sometimes these prose mimes are asked to carry more meaning than they can credibly bear, particularly eyes:
"He stood beside the fireplace and looked at her with eyes that studied, weighed, judged, her without pretense that they were not studying, weighing, judging her. She flushed slightly under the frankness of his scrutiny, but she seemed more sure of herself than before, though a becoming shyness had not left her eyes."
Someone's eyes are described on almost every page of the book.
The detective is described many times as having yellow eyes and a V-shaped mouth. I've never seen a human being with such features, which suggests he may be a space alien, but I doubt that's what Hammett intended.
Considering that, is as far as we know, the heroine is a total self-fabrication, can it be a coincidence that Hammett's main squeeze was Lillian Hellman, of whom Mary McCarthy famously quipped, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'".
Many people's memories confound the book with the 1941 movie. In plot, the movie follows the book pretty closely, with a few cuts and simplifications, but in subtle but important ways it is quite different. In particular, Humphrey Bogart plays the detective. The detective of the book is an unusually large and physically intimidating man. Bogart was five foot nine and couldn’t play it that way. Moreover, Bogart is engaging and likable, whereas the detective of the book is harsh and cold. More generally, a movie loaded with good actors has the great advantage that actors can portray facial expression and body language much more richly and subtly than the printed page, so that they make up for the handicap of “show, don't tell.” The movie also softens the mindless viciousness of the characters in some secondary ways.
I give away nothing that you don't learn in the first few pages in reporting that the detective's partner is soon bumped off and that the detective has been sleeping with his partner's wife. I wistfully imagine a different novel that begins with the detective's thoughts about his relationship with the wife, whatever it may be, and hence how he feels about his partner, and hence what caring about people in general means to him. Then, when we learn the partner has been murdered, it would mean something to us....more
This is a charming, witty, wry book. It is made of 15 short stories. It is not deep, but it sparkles with edgy brightness. The stories are mostly abouThis is a charming, witty, wry book. It is made of 15 short stories. It is not deep, but it sparkles with edgy brightness. The stories are mostly about men who have satirically rigid expectations about what kind of women they seek to involve themselves with (A tall man who likes short women, a man who wants more intellectual women, another who wants less intellectual....) Two of the stories are, however, about robots and bring sly, flexible, and novel insight to the problems of robots living among their human employers.
Here is an example of the general inventiveness: We open with a guy in a bar scene who is talking to a chemist friend. The friend claims to have solved the problem of cold fusion. The protagonist recalls the previous failures of cold fusion, but the chemist persists, saying he can make it work in most liquids, cocktails are particularly good substrates. Out of his pocket, he pulls and anode and cathode attached by wires to a reclusive battery. Soon the protagonist's drink begins to fizz and bubble. The protagonist excuses himself and soon ends up talking to a woman who explains that she is a psychic, but she does not give advice or predict the future, she recovers lost computer files. Everyone has had the experience of loosing work to a computer crash, she asserts, and in her readings, she has been able to recover whole paragraphs.
In another story, the protagonist is conversing with a feminist woman who is pressing him on his sensitivity to gender roles. The author summarizes part of their conversation
He told her he deserved to be treated as an individual, that, though he had been raised "as a man" (except during a brief disorienting period when his parents told him he was a crustacean) he was gentler than most.
It is off-the-wall touches like the parenthetical crustacean that make these stories special.
The characterization is not thick and it assumes at least vague familiarity with marginally techie 20 & 30 somethings. The plots are shifty and sometimes surprising. The prose is crisp and witty, but not thrilling.
The characterization of the robots is in a way the most interesting. We watch them stumble over the attitudes that have been programed into them. It makes me wonder how humans stumble over the attitudes that are programmed into us. ...more