I'm not sure I can give this a number of stars. Would it be five for the total apocalyptic brilliance of the language or 0 for the deeply, astonishing...moreI'm not sure I can give this a number of stars. Would it be five for the total apocalyptic brilliance of the language or 0 for the deeply, astonishingly sick & twisted content? I'm not one to keep reading horrifying things; I don't watch horror movies and I avoid the worst of the news. But Maldoror is something special, a book about evil that is perversely about poetry. If it had been written now I might feel less inclined to love it, but with Rimbaud and Baudelaire for contemporaries it's a different sort of matter. It's peculiar and nonsensical in places, sure, but less in the way of a poor piece of prose and more in the manner of, say, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts: perfectly appropriate for a story about the hallucinatory meanderings of the most evil man in the world.
Some of the pleasure of the book lies in its pure invention: the entire scene, for example, in which one of God's hairs is wondering a round a whorehouse. It's like Naked Lunch in kid gloves, just archaic enough to be fascinatingly horrible instead of sickening, a sort of taxidermied cabinet of monstrosities. For me, however, the real gems of the book are certain of its similes, marvelous and bizarre pairings of images dropped casually in among the sentences, which are, indeed, "as beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table."
My lasting affection for the book, however, comes from something my father did a few years back. A friend of his was getting married, and so my dad brought along his trusty copy of Lautréamont to the bachelor party. They all hop into the hot tub, and my dad proceeds to inform his soon-to-be-wedded buddy that he has a few choice words to share with him on the topic of love. And then he reads him the best scene in the book: the chapter in which a lonely Maldoror sits on a cliff watching the sharks pick off the survivors of a shipwreck, occasionally helping them out with a few shots fired off from above, and becomes enamored of the biggest and most vicious shark of all. My father reads the whole scene, culminating in a fabulously explicit clinch between man and shark amidst the bloody waves. His buddy looks at him for a while. Eventually (and I like to imagine him looking up vaguely into the clouds for this) he just says quietly, "Everything okay in your home life, Josh?"
And that, ladies & germs, is just what YOU should do with Maldoror, too.
Note: This is a condensed version of a What The F!#& Should I Read Friday review, which has lots of pictures, because Leonora Carrington was an am...moreNote: This is a condensed version of a What The F!#& Should I Read Friday review, which has lots of pictures, because Leonora Carrington was an amazing Surrealist painter and so was her friend Remedios Varo, who shows up as a totally awesome character. And GR doesn't doesn't have the formatting capacity to fill this review with magical paintings. Sorry.
1. Whatthe f!#& is it about?
The Hearing Trumpet is a book about 92-year-old Marian Leatherby, whose family puts her in a Home for nutty old ladies that turns out to be much more than it seems. It's written from the point of view of a doddering, cheerful, ancient old hag (that's Marian) and her outlook on life is so completely charming as to make me wish that more people would write from the perspective of the very ancient. It's not her bloody reminiscences; she goes and has an epic occult adventure. It's funny and sweet and totally bizarre. It is not, however, a normally-plotted novel. Lady is into surrealism, okay; don't expect logic. It's not incoherent or "experimental" or any of those obnoxious things; it's just that the structure of the book requires a suspension of normal novelish expectations. It's sort of in thirds: in the first third you meet the characters, who are the best. I don't mean the best in the book; I mean they are the best characters, period. She's an intrepid old bat having adventures and she is hilarious and completely herself, by which I mean she is utterly alive and completely believable and not just some sort of surrogate for Leonora Carrington. She's a mad deaf thing and perfectly well aware that everyone around her thinks she's a crumbling wreck, but she's a lovely indignant person inside while still being totally old.
In the second third there's a story-within-the-story, and this is where it becomes very important that you get the Exact Change edition and not the Penguin Modern Classics edition. This is important for two reasons: one, the front cover of the Exact Change edition, above, is one of Leonora Carrington's own paintings (The Giantess, 1947); two; it is full of really fantastical illustrations by her son, Pablo Weisz Carrington, which are one part Ralph Steadman and one part Chagall. They look like his mother feels, somehow. And they make the odd middle part of the story totally come alive - for me, anyway. The Penguin edition has no pictures at all you guys. It feels much more like a surreal fairytale when it has pictures.
In the third part...well, I won't ruin it, but let's just say it's truly fantastical and bizarre and you won't see it coming, and there's none of that "it was all a dream" nonsense, either. (For some reason people compare this book to Alice. Listen, guys, for once and for all: just because it's f!#&ing weird and magical DOES NOT MEAN IT'S LIKE ALICE IN F!#&ING WONDERLAND OKAY. That is not, in fact, the only weird and magical book ever written. Whoa, I know, radical thought, right?) And if you don't have the illustrated version you won't know how sad you are, because you won't know what you're missing, but trust me, you are sad. Look, what I'm saying is that this book is a piece of brilliantly magical writing for grownups, and it also has brilliantly magical pictures for grownups. Sarah Jackson over on Bad Reputation sums it ups nicely:
Trying to describe the plot doesn’t really do it justice, just go and read it. If you mixed a bit of Angela Carter, Spike Milligan, Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl together you might get something close. It’s enchanting and funny, and makes for a refreshing encounter with Surrealism sans machismo.
Look, she says things like "“Wouldn't it be wonderful if I won a helicopter in a crossword puzzle competition? There is not much hope though I am afraid, as they never give such practical prizes." Trust me, you want to know Marian Leatherby. She is a formidable lady.
2. Whythe f!#& should I read it?
Ah. Well. Here's where you say I hate surrealism, it's stupid and weird and why are the clocks always f!#&ing melting that is so dumb and I don't want to read about it at all.
And this is where I say don't be an idiot, there aren't any clocks in the book, way to stereotype, geez. And the reason you should read the book is because it is about a very, very old woman who still has her sense of wonder and delight left. Look, really, people will say it's about a hundred things, because it's weird and magical and has peculiar pictures and was written by a painter who was institutionalized and so on. And probably most of the things they say are right, but they're missing the point. The point of the book is being an old crone and still open to the experience of marvels and mystery. (Not to mention she still bloody well has a sense of humor.) That, my friends, is what I call a f!#&ing inspiration. (less)
The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton Oxford University Press World Classics Edition, 1996
Fair disclosure warning: this is my favorite book of al...more The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton Oxford University Press World Classics Edition, 1996
Fair disclosure warning: this is my favorite book of all time. And yes, this edition is from 1996, but the book was originally published in 1908. This book is a marvel and a wonder, and if you don't want to read it at least a little bit it might seriously jeopardize our chances at a long-term friendship. So no pressure, or anything. Side note: it is also directly responsible for my very wonderful relationship. I started reading it aloud to K on our very first date, and by the time we got to chapter three, well...that was it. Furthermore, it should be noted that his extremely epic blond beard and curly mustache both derive directly from the facial hair of the main character of Thursday. As in I said him, "Hey, so you should probably have a pointed yellow beard like Syme" and then he did. ALL I DO IS WIN.
This one. STAY AWAY.
If you've read any of my other reviews, you may have noticed that I have a thing about which edition I think you should read.This is because it makes a bloody difference, dammit. In this case, the edition I want you to read has several things going for it: a pretty stellar introduction, really stellar textual notes (which you will need, okay, to understand jokes about stuff that is a century old) and also two extra short stories at the back, which Chesterton wrote before he wrote Thursday, which do a very cool job of illustrating how disparate ideas come together to make something epically awesome and more than the sum of its parts, in this case the topics of God and Anarchy. If you can't get this Oxford edition, fine; just whatever you do don't get the f!#&ing Ignatius Press version, with annotations by Martin Gardner, because they are unbelievably annoying. Gardner apparently saw the book as a chance to write about everything he ever wanted to say about Edwardian England, whether or not it is even remotely relevant; at one point he uses an incidental mention of "gollywog" to go off for two full pages - three if you count the illustration - about the history of the word, which he begins thusly: "This lengthy note will tell you much more about gollywogs than you may care to know, but I hope you will find it an interesting sidelight on Edwardian England." Yes! That's right! It IS much more than I care to know! IF I WANTED TO READ ABOUT GOLLYWOGS I WOULD HAVE BOUGHT A DIFFERENT BOOK. Also, these are FOOTNOTES, not endnotes, and so the actual text of the story takes up literally four of the thirty-two lines on the page, half the next page, and did I mention the illustration? Oh, I did? Well, anyway, that's the page after that. He does this several times, just wandering off on his own trains of thought, which he seems to find utterly fascinating, and leaves the actual text of the book to occupy a couple lines at the top of the page as, you know, a special favor. He also plugs his own books, and most of the actually useful footnotes are just quotes from other people's annotations. It is maddening. I would mind less if the notes were at the back, where they might provide an interesting addition, but having them in the text makes me want to RIP THE PAGES.
Oh yeah, and then also? he has GIANT SPOILERS in the footnotes. Thursday is, among other things, a mystery novel. You know what ruins mystery novels? GIANT F!#&ING SPOILERS, that's what. And don't even get me started on the place where he started to go off about how one of Chesterton's images could be taken as a symbol of string theory. He's like "so I know Chesterton probably didn't intend this, but..." NO SHIT, SHERLOCK. You know what they didn't have in 1908? STRING THEORY. You just wanted to look smart, and instead? You look like a jerk who just likes to see himself talk.
Sigh. Sorry, Mr. Gardner, that was maybe kinda mean and harsh, but really, dude. Don't do that. Anyway, ladies and germs, your five questions are, as always...
1. Who the f!#& wrote this book? 2. Whatthe f!#& is it about? 3. Wherethe f!#& should I read this book? 4. Whenthe f!#& is it set? 5. Whythe f!#& should I read it?
1. Who the f!#& wrote this book? The author of this book is a man named G. K. Chesterton, and to be honest, you don't need to know that much about him to think this book is the tits. ("The tits" is a synonym for "the shit," if you were confused for a minute there. Because shit is kind of gross, and tits are - we can all agree on this, right? - pretty much awesome.) He was a late convert to Catholicism and turns out he was an anti-Semite, which is super lame, but none of it shows up in Thursday even a little so I can still love it without being a self-hating Jew. he had some fascinating ideas and beliefs, and his way of approaching Christianity & God in his writing is similar in many ways to C.S. Lewis - who you may hate, because I know some people find the Narnia books to be cutesy twee advertisements for Jesus, but they're only that if you vastly oversimplify them. In fact, both Chesterton and Lewis had some very weird radical thoughts on God and Nature. Prince Caspian, for example, is not only full of wood spirits and dryads and such, but also has a jolly cameo by Bacchus and the Maenads. See, I'm pretty sure Jesus was not down with the pagan gods of wine, let alone their maddened dancing girls. And no matter how obnoxiously paternalistic Aslan might be, he's a lion. Similarly, the deity in Thursday is a little more complicated than just the Big Beardy In The Sky. So if you're kinda like me, and have a knee-jerk reaction to Books About Religion or Books Written By Religious People, fear not. Awesomeness abounds despite the author's yay-God-type proclivities.
2. Whatthe f!#& is it about? Ah. Um. Good question! I'm glad you asked! It's about a poet who becomes a detective, and a giant anarchist plot. Or it's about a man who loves order descending into chaos in order to find God. Or it's about the relationship of God to Nature. Or it's a wild nightmare. Or it's about love. Above all, it is a poetic adventure, and I suppose it's up to you to decide just what exactly the poem is really about. (Is that a cop-out answer? Maybe, but it's also completely correct.)
3. Wherethe f!#& should I read this book? It's surprisingly slim, really, so not on long train rides. Somewhere you can really sit back and enjoy the language. It is a lovely, luscious read, so pick a pleasant place. Better yet, read it out loud to a friend who loves great literature, or have it read to you by someone who really knows how to make a sentence sing.
4. Whenthe f!#& is it set? The Man Who was Thursday is set (as touched upon above) in Edwardian England, and as such some of the references are admittedly, um, well, dated. The footnotes provide most of what matters, and assuming you are a reasonably logical person, you can fill in most of the missing gaps. If you are not a reasonably logical person, you might enjoy it anyway, because it is more magical than logical anyway and knowing what Colney Hatch is won't really lessen that if you have at least a smattering of imagination.
5. Whythe f!#& should I read it? You should read it because it is exquisitely written, first of all. Okay, so I just finished Stephen King's On Writing which was pretty okay, I guess, and he talks a lot about adverbs, and how there are too many of them, and they should be stricken from the page wherever possible. Well, maybe in a thriller, yes. But sometimes things like adverbs are a delight. Sometimes language is a toy, not a tool, and Chesterton plays with it. Listen to me when I say this; this is important. Every single sentence in this book is a joy to read. Each one is a delicate and fabulous construction, a vivid confection of words. Think of this book as an old-fashioned candy shop, a delightful emporium of linguistic treats. Also, it is very, very funny - at least, I think so. In fact, when my father first read this book to me when I was nine (okay, yes, a lot of it went whistling over my head, but still) there came a passage that made me laugh so hard he was seriously afraid I was going to choke. I can't quote it to you, because it will spoil things in the first half of the novel. It is full of dialogue that sparkles like champagne, and descriptions that glow as hot and bright and wild as the sunset that opens the book, and characters of a marvelous and dancing quality. It has duels, and car chases, and hot air balloons (well, one, anyway); an escaped elephant, a bomb, a secret language, conspiracy, philosophy, theology, and bonhomie; it's got deception and intrigue and disguise and frock coats and nobility and despair and plenty of drinking. It is a tiny, perfect masterwork of a book, an antique pocketwatch with the golden gears all showing and shining in that kind of marvelous movement that you just can't get these days. Look, this book could never be written now. It would be a joke, or a very bad pretension, or just fall awkwardly flat. But it is a glorious, serious romp of a novel, and you should fill yourself full of the effervescent gleam it offers you. It is a joy to read. Really. (less)