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
**spoiler alert** This novel follows the adventures of three English people who have come out recently to join the ruling class in India in the early**spoiler alert** This novel follows the adventures of three English people who have come out recently to join the ruling class in India in the early part of the 20th century and of an Indian who becomes involved with them. The prose is effective but not exciting. Characterization is subtle and intimate. Plot is like life; events have consequences, but there is never a sense of the author shaping reality to the needs of drama. Narration is third person, omniscient author, and the author is free to make comments on the characters, events, and life.
The dialogue is crisp, realistic, and on occasion very witty. Speech tags are seriously lacking. I read the book aloud, and frequently had to interpolate the attribution of a bit of dialogue, and sometimes had to stop to figure it out.
The book has three main concerns: The relations between the English rulers and professional class Indians; Friendship; and the experience of an individual relating to the nature of the universe, which is seen here from something like a Hindu perspective.
The first three quarters of the book are set in an area of India that is described as in Bihar, but seems like West Bengal. That is, an area dominated politically and culturally by Muslim landowners, with a shadowy mass of poor Hindus who are mostly agricultural laborers. The last quarter of the novel moves to a Hindu native state.
The English characters who have been serving in India for some time are described as rigid and priggish. They treat Indians as nonpersons and retreat into a shell as anyone might do if surrounded by nonpersons. Early in the book an Indian comments something to the effect that any Englishman who comes to India goes bad in a year, and a woman in six months. Treatment of the wives of the administrators is particularly scathing. Perhaps it is because the men at least have to work with Indians, whereas the women are closeted in their homes and the English-only club. The main English characters are our hero, Fielding, who is been in India perhaps only a few months and is a caring, skeptical, person who maintains his ties with anyone he happens to like, and two women: a young woman who has come out to decide whether to marry an administrator, and the frail and sensitive mother of the administrator, who accompanies her.
The novel is pessimistic on this score: the implication is that it will never be possible for the English and the Indians to have consistently human relations.
The main Indian character is a mercurial, poetic, engaging, sentimental Muslim doctor who works for the British. He becomes friendly first with the mother when she and he have a meeting of the minds as she sympathetically visits a mosque and does not act like an overlord. Through her, he becomes a close friend of Fielding. It is his friendship for the mother, the mother's friendship for the possible fiancé, and most of all the off-and-on friendship between Fielding and the Indian doctor that hold he book together. Off-and-on because of the events that unfold.
The plot turns on something that happens to the fiancée when she visits one of a group of caves. In these dark caves, she confronts the absence of structure. The caves have the property that reflection from the curved, glassy walls transforms any light, say a match stirking, into a sort of writhing squiggle, and, more important, any sound – any sound, a footfall, your name, the rustle of a crowd, – transforms into a single low roar. This phenomenon is the objective correlative of the absence of structure. I'm no expert on Hindu metaphysics, but I understand that for an intellectual Hindu the ultimate reality is something formless that includes nonbeing as well as being. Confronted with this phenomenon, the English girl, fragile because of insecurity about her emotional life and her future, panics terribly, and eventually accuses the Indian doctor, who was in fact absent, of sexual assault.
In a broader and less intense way, from time to time, Forster writes in his own voice about the relation between the individual and the nature of reality.
The English community circles its wagons and puts the doctor on trial. It becomes a political trial and the object of mass demonstrations. In the witness box, the fiancée somehow gets a grip on what happened and retracts the charge -; the doctor is acquitted. Her retraction is an example of Forster's realism, which is rooted in the mysterious quality of life as both random and inevitable, rather than in any kind of theory. It is both surprising and convincing.
The lives of the characters in the setting where they originally appeared are now shattered and they scatter. The last quarter of the book is about when the sane Englishmen, Fielding, and the doctor meet again a few years later in a Hindu native state where the latter has taken a job and Fielding is making an inspection tour. Though they have a deep and convivial feeling for one another, in the end, Fielding has been at least partially sucked into the English attitude, and the trial has forced the doctor to become a militant Indian nationalist, so their friendship cannot endure.
Stereotyping is important in this book, and Forster explores it and its consequences in detail. With the exception of Fielding and the two women, the English overlords stereotype the Indians as nonhuman. Indians stereotype the English as arrogant and capricious. The Muslims show casual contempt for the Hindus. The attitude of the Hindus towards Muslims is never really explored. But Forster also is guilty of stereotyping, seeing the Indians as casual about veracity and commitment, and making some generalizations about "Orientals" as if the Orient contained no Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians etc.
I want to add a note about the movie directed by David Lean. On its own terms, I think it's a good movie, but it departs from the meaning of the book in two important respects. In the movie the reason for the fiancée's panic is sexual anxiety, provoked in part by a bicycle trip through jungley erotic sculptures, which is not in the novel. The absence of form can invoke feelings related to undisciplined sexuality, but the novel is not centered on sex. Second, in the end Fielding and the Indian doctor are separated by circumstances, rather than Forster's vision of the impossibility of rulers being friends with the ruled....more