I didn't re-read Jack London for a long time, and when I did, last year, I had a surprise: one of my favorite pieces, and the one that is extremely po...moreI didn't re-read Jack London for a long time, and when I did, last year, I had a surprise: one of my favorite pieces, and the one that is extremely popular and well-loved in Russia, Smoke Bellew is virtually unknown here. It is a later work, published in 1911-12, and Jack London himself called it a hack work, written for money. And yet, it is, I believe, great. I mean, I've read later London's novels that were over-blown, over-melodramatic and rather impossible. Smoke Bellew is none of those things. In fact, it combines the best of both worlds. It is a collection of short stories tied into unity by the same characters (both main and secondary), same time ( Klondike Gold Rush) and same place (Yukon territory). It escapes the the soggy plotting and other problems with novels that Jack London had – most critics agree that Jack London was much better with his short stories than his novels- and yet still allows for character development impossible in a short format.
At some point or other I read a lot of Jack London – short stories, novels, but it was a long time ago, so I was wondering how well it will hold. And it generally was just as excellent as I remember. The language was fine, though I had to figure out several slang phrases (remember, I read it first in translation). The main character, Smoke Bellew, is still good, the descriptions are still amazing and awe-inspiring and bring to life everything London is writing about.
In the first story, The Taste of Meat we meet with our hero, 27-years old Bohemian Kit Bellew, languishing in San Francisco, working (without pay) in a newspaper and hating it all. He is well-educated, cultured, and hardworking, but his uncle appears and berates him for being less a man. Kit doesn't feel like less a man, but he is tired of his life and wants to get out, so when his uncle jokingly suggests to go with him and his sons to Klondike, Kit happily agrees. Then he gets a journey full of physical hardship and joyful self-discovery; he meets his partner, Shorty, and a young woman Joy Gastell. He doesn't turn back when the initial goal was achieved, and went on, to the new interesting life in the Great North. He goes to Dawson city and starts the life most people live there – hunting, looking for gold, hunting travelling around. But also soon enough he gets to be the talk of Dawson thanks to his adventures.
Sometimes one may think Smoke (Kit re-named himself so) is a perfect person. He is intelligent and clever, he is kind and brave, he has a sense of humour and a poetic streak, he is honest and inventive, he is hard-working, he is a good friend... He is all that, but he also is a man of his time, and reading it now, a hundred years after it was written it feels like his main negative quality. One he couldn't overcome, of course. We can see it most clearly in his attitudes to the Indians and women: he is benevolent to them, but both the latter and the former are equally alien to him.
I have a very quaint feeling about women in London's stories – he creates strong, interesting, alive female characters, and then he doesn't know what to do with them. Both the author and his heroes, which left me more than often infuriated by the end of the story. Smoke Bellew stories have a few ladies in them, but they all are very memorable. It keeps true – there were much more men than women during Gold Rush in Yukon, and Jack London gives us the wide scope of women who were there – some were born there or came as children with their parents, like Joy Gastell, and were experienced old timers when the Gold Rush began. Some came with their husbands, or by themselves to mine gold, some worked as entertainers or in the service industry, as we say now – doing laundry and cooking for much better money than anywhere else. Some, of course, just lived there all the time. All worked. Not every one was nice and kind. None were a fragile delicate flowers that societal mores dictated they should have been.
And here lies, I think, the problem. London was describing women, based on the women he saw there, but he also tried to adhere to the feminine ideal of his epoch. Behold the resulting mess. It isn't noticeable where the character is episodic, like the woman-miner in “A man on the Other Bank” who is excluded from voting whether to hang Smoke or not (he is suspected in murder), and subsequently lets Smoke go, saying “If I am not good enough to hang him, I am not good enough to keep him”.
Then there is Joy Gastell, who is a recurring character in the book and Smoke's love interest. She live in the North with her father since she was a little girl, but was educated somewhere else in the meantime. At the time of the story she is in her early twenties, an experienced Northerner who does everything men around her do, often better – we see it in glimpses, but it is clear enough. And it is enough to admire her together with Smoke. Which is why I hated that in order to get them closer together, London sent Smoke off to... another woman. The very last story in the collection is “The wonder of a woman”, and London, according to (here) tried to make one of his best. It is a really good story, indeed, but most likely you are cringing just reading its title, as I do, every time. Smoke and Shorty are captured by an Indian tribe that is lead by a white man. We were never told anything about this man – what is he, why does he hate the outside world so much, how did he become the Indian chief. We can see that he is cruel, but fair, that he orders to capture whoever gets in his radius of attention, but not clear why (to protect his privacy? To find a husband for his daughter? Out of meanness? ) and yes, he has a grown-up daughter, Labisquee, also white. He mother died long time ago, and she doesn't know anything about her. But she knows about love and romance – from the stories that another captured white man, who was telling her stories about Paolo and Franceska. So inevitably she falls in love with Smoke, and he learns about goodness and wonder of all women through her. At this point I got annoyed and my annoyance only grew with the story development. Mind you, Labisquee is awesome, she is not all goodness and sweetness by any standards. She also sees herself very much apart from the Indians around her, no matter that she shares her life with them, she hardly knows anyone else, and her father is actually the chief. So she is interesting complicated character, and I can't help feeling that she was served unfairly by being stuck in this story, instead of having a story of her own. And giving Joy Gastell more interactions with Smoke. And no nonsense about wonders of a woman.
Still, it is a very good story, and it makes me happy, all the shortcomings notwithstanding.
Now, to more cheerful aspect – reading this time I was paying attention to geographical moments. Remember, it all happened in Canada! I traced the may Smoke made from Dyea, to Dawson on the map of Canada that we still have on the wall, I poured over Google Maps of the regions. There is street view of Dawson, and lot of pictures of the mountains and vales, and forest, and rivers of Yukon available there. I finally realized why people were carrying all this weight with them – Dawson didn't have enough food supplies and a year-worth supply of food (grub) was the requirement of Canadian authorities – one couldn't be admitted to Canada without their own food. There is nothing, of course, in the book about crossing the border and dealing with customs and such, but I cheered at every mention of mounted police, Ottawa, or some other Canadian mark. There was no outright mention of it being Canada, still. Just Great North haunted by brave and glorious mounted police...
I am reading Wilkie Collins. Again. The Woman in White. And I love it again. I am quite fond of Walter Hartright, and I love, love, Marian Halcombe. S...moreI am reading Wilkie Collins. Again. The Woman in White. And I love it again. I am quite fond of Walter Hartright, and I love, love, Marian Halcombe. She is one of the most interesting female characters I know of. Ever. And what a description, and what a role physical beauty plays here. We meet with her turning back to the Walter – and to the reader. And with Walter we admire her back, her stature, her body, and then she turns, and… her face isn’t up to contemporary beauty standards. Oops.
She mostly isn’t feminine enough in her expressions. Then she starts talking and all ugliness is forgotten. Until, of course, Laura appears, the vision of a perfect beauty, not perfect in its features, but in its influence over a man. I don’t find Laura interesting per ce. I like her, she is a sweetie, but she is always an object – of love, greed, villainy, or nobility. She is like Irene from the Forsyte Saga, slipping through other lives, influencing other lives, but never acting themselves.
Beauty does mean a lot in our first impressions – whether we admit it or not. But the second impressions help us with a touch of reality.
And I loved Walter in the fateful meeting on the road to London with the Woman in White. How sincerely perplexed he is! How he is trying to justify himself in helping the stranger!
It got me immediately when the characters started discussing Hegel - and then it was getting better and better: main characters I love, revolutionary...moreIt got me immediately when the characters started discussing Hegel - and then it was getting better and better: main characters I love, revolutionary underground, mystery and intrigue, Engels (actually as a character in the action), more Hegel with Kant and Hume, and the lovely XIX-century epistolary style.
The genre is impossible to define - it is not fantasy, not really a historical fiction or a philosophy textbook... But then, probably all really good book defy the strict genre definitions.
Reading about Engels - as the regular character - seems kind of strange. They (I rarely can think of him in singular, without Marx attached as a Siamese brain-twin, even though I read each of them separately) feel like an older relative - that you know were young and did what all humans do, but never think about it. they are way too memorial. And this is one of reasons I enjoy seeing Engels there so much.
The main characters (Susan, Kitty, James and Richard) are delightful, and I savor every moment with them, too. They are far from perfect - they have their quirks and vices and secrets, and they can be difficult, but they are never annoying and flat. (less)
It hit all the right buttons with me- the time-travel, the mystery of time, the making of history, personal choices and general course of events, happ...moreIt hit all the right buttons with me- the time-travel, the mystery of time, the making of history, personal choices and general course of events, happy fluff and irony. Kittens and ugly objects of décor to add – all made for very happy Avrelia. (less)
It wasn’t an easy book to read, neither the first time around, five years ago, when it took me couple of months to...moreThis is what I wrote five years ago:
It wasn’t an easy book to read, neither the first time around, five years ago, when it took me couple of months to finish it, nor now, even though I read it in a week. I cannot claim I got all the references, and understood fully everything… It is never the point, isn’t it? We are reading books through our personal lens that change as we change. Five years ago a different me read a different “Foucault's Pendulum”. The one I read now was about history, perceptions, and personal choices – the things that have a large place in my thoughts lately. (If my husband reread this book now, it would probably be about competition and productivity.) We want to make sense out the world, out of the life, and of the history – our personal and the big one. We want everything to make sense. Sometimes by this we mean to have a sense of higher purpose.
I love reading about The Plan. I don’t suppose it existed, but I enjoy reading the chapters about creating the plan as well as various conspiracy theories. They often seem so entertaining. In this I am a little bit like Kazobon – trying to fanwank history for the fun of it, but not believing in any of it, just enamored with the beauty of a well-crafted nonsense.
It is a little bit about being a demiurge - creating your own world out of the chaos of the real one. Only it is not a chaos, it is a life, going through its eternal conflict between chaos and order, because both perfect chaos and perfect order is an absence of life. Entropy. It is also about creation itself – paralleling the creation of the plan, with writing of a book, with conceiving of a child, with creation of oneself. And once again, does our life have a meaning? Is there a one perfect, sparkling moment that justifies everything, that brings everything to the single point, the only fixed point in the universe?
So, here goes a mistake of getting heads too high it the abstract intellectual clouds. And Belbo is telling about the plan to a wrong person for a wrong reason.
I was thinking about it for too long, and I am losing the connection with the book. What was about Belbo? It was important. I’ll have to read it again. Meet me here in five years, ok?
So, I guess, now the time comes to read it the third time...(less)