Jules Verne, classic pulp author, innovator of science fiction, originator of 'steampunk'--or was he? Many readers of the English language will never...moreJules Verne, classic pulp author, innovator of science fiction, originator of 'steampunk'--or was he? Many readers of the English language will never know the real Verne, and I'm not talking about those who dislike reading. Indeed, many well-meaning folks from the English-speaking world have picked up and read a book titled 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' cover to cover, and yet still know next to nothing of Verne, due to his long-standing translation problem. And as an interesting note, twenty thousand leagues does not refer to the depth of the Nautilus, but the distance traveled.
Since his earliest publication, when the author was still alive, translations of his work into English have been abhorrent. For speakers of other languages, he is considered an intelligent, thoughtful, deliberate author, not a half-competent penner of fun pulp adventures (and this isn't some Baudelaire/Poe error on their part). Indeed, it's created a catch-22 in literary studies: current translations of Verne are so bad that no one wants to read or study him, so there's little demand for new translations.
How bad are the old translations? Bad. Often up to 25% of the text is cut. Character names are changed, as are plot points and events. Anything which might reflect poorly on British colonial policy is left out. Verne's carefully-researched scientific facts and numbers are arbitrarily changed or deleted. 'Diving suit' becomes 'life vest' and in several incidents, translators added racial epithets, in one case translating 'he said' as 'whined the Jew'. Compare two translations of Verne, and you're likely to find they differ greatly in length, content, and story. Indeed, even the title in French does not end with 'sea', but 'seas'.
Sadly, picking up a copy of the book, new or used, and you are still likely to get one of these terrible translations, since they are in the public domain. But we need suffer beneath this maltreatment no longer, for recently, several scholars have labored to bring to us faithful and well-researched translations. F.P. Walter donated his translation to Project Gutenberg, and it may be found here, while William Butcher's, which includes a critical introduction and footnotes, is available here.
Reading through these, it must be clear that Verne is not a pulp author, with more imagination than sense, but then, it's also difficult to describe his work as science fiction or steampunk. For the first, all the technologies he puts forth are not fictional, but real, current technologies: submarines had been in use since the American Civil war and his descriptions all rely closely on data found in scientific journals. It's true that his submarine is much larger and more advanced than any other, but it's hardly the same leap as a race to the moon or a journey through time. Indeed, as with Doyle's Professor Challenger stories, it is not man who is fantastical, but the world around him. As for 'steampunk', the Nautilus skips right past steam and diesel and is wholly powered by chemical batteries and electricity, with nary a cog or flywheel to be found.
As for the writing itself, it is intelligent, the characters strong, and Verne is quite capable of giving us those little insights which subtly alters our perception of the various interpersonal conflicts which dominate the book's plot. Though there are various events--the squid, meeting with this or that vessel, the undersea gardens, travel to the antarctic--these are all scattered throughout the story willy nilly, as if it were a real travelogue, tied together by the real central plot, which is the conflict between the captain and our heroes.
But since fiction is artificial, it does not make sense for the author to pretend that it isn't, so I found it disappointing that the individual occurrences of the plot rarely seemed important, nor did Verne build up to them or create a letdown, afterwards. The famous scene with the giant squid was particularly disappointing and anti-climactic, emerging suddenly and then over in a few moments. It's something I've been struggling with as I work on my own Victorian sci fi novel: ensuring that each scene has purpose on its own, and flows from one to the next.
It need not even be a clear flow of events: flow can also be achieved through mood, tone, and pace. Verne's book owes a great deal to Moby Dick, a book which bravely thrust from scene to scene, but where each scene was conceptually interconnected with the one before and the one after that, even if one was about the classification of whales and the next about someone being swept out to sea, there was still a conceptual link between them.
Verne's digressions of science and classification are not bound up in the purpose and philosophy of his story, as Melville's are, which leads to another problem that I have been carefully weighing in my own writing: what to include. Again and again, Verne spends long parts of chapters listing through types of fish seen outside the ship. Some of these are like Ovid's lists: full of lovely images, colors, and shapes, a melange of words and sounds that approaches a sort of poetry. Some contain humorous or interesting details which have some bearing on the situation at hand. Yet in many instances, they are merely long, dry, and add nothing to the book.
It certainly makes sense, as our narrator is a trained classifier, and duly interested in such things, but one of the rules of fiction is that we leave out reality when it is dull or extraneous, or pass it by with a few words, as Verne does dozens of time, commenting on the passing of days or weeks in a paragraph or even a sentence. To me, leaving in such long-winded, repetitious digressions was a mark against the book.
But then, science fiction is very fond of such digressions, and Verne also indulges in the other kind: the long chapters of explanation about length, tonnage, and the particulars of undersea travel, all taking place at the slow pace of a Socratic dialogue: 'but then how do you replenish these sodium batteries being, as you are, always at sea', 'well, you see, I distill it from the very . . .', and so on. And of course, almost none of these myriad details are ever shown to be important again. My general rule is to only go into detail so much as it:
I. Impacts the story directly II. Sets an artistic mood III. Symbolically explores the philosophical ideas in the book, or IV. Is amusing, in and of itself
But then, Verne is not only indebted to Melville, but to Poe, and his disjointed, bizarre story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket--his only foray into the novel, and one of those books that is so flawed and unusual that it has inspired whole generations of authors who feel that, with a bit more focus and tightening up, they might turn its form into something quite strong. So, when we rush from carefully-detailed and researched science and plunge into silly, unsupported tall tales in Verne, we can, to some degree, thank Poe, whose story started as a straightforward travelogue and ended as some kind of religious symbolic fever dream.
But it is strange to me to see Verne spend a chapter talking meticulously about the tonnage of the Nautilus and what volume of water would be required to sink to certain depths, and then claiming that sharks can only bite while swimming upside-down and that pearl divers in Ceylon wouldn't be able to hold their breath for more than a minute at a time. It just goes to show that no matter how much careful research and deliberation you put into a book, you're still going to make errors, so in the end, you might want to focus more on your story, plotting, and pacing (things you can control), and less on endlessly researching things that could just as easily be passed over without the story losing anything (except length).
And overall, this is what I wish Verne had done. While I respect the intelligence and precision with which he pursues his work, and I would definitely not rank him among the pulps, the very rich character story at the center of the book was too lightly touched upon, when, as in Frankenstein or Moby Dick, it could have been the focus, and made for a much stronger book. The characters, the conflicts, and the psychology were all there, but in the end, we leave the book without a completed arc.(less)
Reading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling story...moreReading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling story with only two swordfights, where political theory, masked theater forms, and the science of fencing all take center stage, and where the hero is strangely shy, introverted, and reluctant. But Captain Blood never strays as far from its genre boundaries.
We still have a somewhat quiet, humble, over-educated hero (Scarmouche is the lawyer-turned-actor, Blood the doctor-turned-pirate), but Blood is less complex, less conflicted. His depressive brooding is not as interesting as Scaramouche's wry frustration, in part because it's less active.
In both stories, the movements of the plot are dictated by misunderstandings, things left unsaid, assumptions made too quickly. For the audience, it's more satisfying to see a hero who is angered by these misunderstandings, and who wants to change them, rather than one who simply accepts them and gives into his woe, being saved in the end only by chance. It's more interesting to see a character win his love than to stumble upon it after a sufficient length of hardship.
The plot is made up of the expected parts: mutiny, sea battles, daring raids, swordfights, and rescues. The book is well-researched, and the pacing isn't bad, but it lacks a certain depth. The world is not complete, it is a single view, with few insights or surprises, which is the danger of any genre piece that never strays from the bare bones of its form.
It's an exciting enough bit of adventure, with some thoughtfulness and characters who are not simple cardboard cliches, but in the end, there isn't much to it.(less)
In 1819 in Manhattan, a strange trial was commencing. A merchant of that great city had been found in possession of barrels of spermacetti, the fine-q...moreIn 1819 in Manhattan, a strange trial was commencing. A merchant of that great city had been found in possession of barrels of spermacetti, the fine-quality oil which may be obtained from the head of the Sperm Whale. When an inspector demanded he pay the proper taxes on his goods, the merchant, who apparently made a hobby of science, declared that he had no fish product in his possession, and so the tax did not apply. He was duly arrested and, contending the charges, a trial was begun to determine, once-and-for-all, if whales were indeed, fish.
This was becoming an increasingly important question in the wake of Linneaus' great work and the recent codification by numerous biologists of the many families in which plants and animals numbered their descent, which would soon culminate in the great discovery of Darwin. Is it possible there was some familial connection between whales and dogs? Or more troublingly, between these alien monsters of the deep and humans? It was important to determine an answer, but it is singularly strange that the venue chosen to answer this question was not the halls of academia, or even the wild world of the working naturalist, but a courthouse, with judge, lawyers, and jury arguing the question.
Certainly, numerous scientists were brought in to testify, and so were experienced whale-hunters, who tended to give contradicting accounts. As D. Graham Burnett puts it, in his book on the trial, Trying Leviathan, these were men with 'lay expertise'--they dealt everyday with the subject at hand, but had no grasp of the history or theory behind it. One might point to the difference between the man who drives a car every day to work, and the man who knows how a car is built.
So it is somewhat strange that, thirty-two years later, Moby Dick seems to show us relatively little progress on this question. Melville first declares that whales are definitely fish (though he does not discount their mammalian structures), laments the many futile attempts to depict them accurately, and then embarks on an attempt to classify members of the species which is hardly scientific.
His approach was not a modern, thoroughly-researched analysis of the subject as it stood, but a conceptual exploration, and in the end, a flawed one, a failed experiment, and not the only one in Melville's great work.
There are mistaken details, dropped plotlines and characters, vast shifts in style and tone, changes in point-of-view, as if several different sorts of book were combined together. This is not a classic lauded for its narrow, precise perfection, but for its wide-reaching, seemingly-fearless leaps into waters both varied and deep.
Reading Melville's letters, it is clear he knew his experiment was not an entire success, but he pressed on boldly despite his doubts, refusing to write anything less grand just because he feared it might, in some parts, fail. It is a difficult thing for an author not to give in and write something smaller and safer, something certain. It is Achilles' choice: to live a small and easy life, which will be long and passing pleasant, or to strike at the skies, to die in the flame of youth, and become a song. Like Ahab, Melville attempts something grand, dangerous, and unknown.
It is a phrase we hear, which we understand, something pervasive. There are a number of reasons that Melville's great work, ignored and sneered at in his lifetime, is now preeminent. For all the flaws of his book, it is still full of remarkable successes.
It begins with several strange, ominous notes, like a Beethoven symphony, calling us to attention, with the mystic and dark theology of "There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within". But then it strikes away--there are still some dark shadows which flit across the scene, but for the most part, we are following Ishmael, in all of his funny, bumbling, pretentious, self-deprecating little adventures. It is, at the first, fundamentally a Sea Story in the old tradition, and we should not forget that it is a grand Romance, not serious-minded realism.
One thing I was not prepared for was this book's often subtle and sometimes uproarious humor. Sadly, that part seems to be missing from its great reputation. As a Romance, it is not precisely concerned with developing holistic character psychology, it is enough to have types and archetypes, though they are often twisted. The individual pieces on the board act less like individuals and more like different aspects of one mind, the central mind of the book itself, of which each character forms a small part.
So if relationships are sometimes rushed, or lapse, or are unfinished, those may be flaws in pacing, but each relationship is building together, contributing to the vision Melville gives us of his little world, so they are hardly pointless elements. It is more that Melville takes shortcuts here and there to tell the central story, for as he himself points out, to tell the whole story of Moby Dick is more than any one author could do.
Much has been made of the vast symbology of the book, probably too much. It is not an allegory, there is no one thing that the whale stands for, or Ahab, or the ship. They are all parts of a story, and while we may understand them by thinking about evil, or good, or fate, or faith, to try to boil them down to some simple meaning is to miss the point, and to turn a great story into nothing more than a fable. It is a mistake to go in asking 'what does this represent', it does the book a disservice. Asking this question is not necessary for us to understand the work.
Melville's bleak vision captured the imagination of the emerging post-modern thinkers who had seen the world wars tear apart concepts and assumptions which been long unchangeable and taken for granted. But it is not that this is a dark, hopeless book, but rather that it is a book which lacks simple, familiar answers. It does not wallow in the notion of hopelessness, but rather seems troubled by the fact that hope seems so often leads us to an inescapably hopeless place.
In the thirties and forties, this book became a sort of 'test' for intellectuals. It gives no easy answers, yet it displays a wide array of ideas, conclusions, conflicts, and worldviews. So when one literary critic asked another what he thought of Moby Dick, he was asking what he was able to create from this basic toolset of ideas which had no simple, right answer.
Unfortunately, this open-endedness has given the book an undeserved reputation of being inaccessible and requiring some vast store of knowledge in order to 'get' it. It is fundamentally a story about characters, and the only thing required to get it is to be a human being with an interest in other human beings. In fact, at one point, Melville makes a parody of the idea of the text which is full of allusions that only experts will understand, with the tale of 'Darmonodes and the elephant', which is not actually a real reference to anything, but was made up by Melville to tease those who are obsessed with dissecting every allusion.
Certainly, it does slow down around the middle, when we start getting various explanations about the history and methods of whaling, but the book is not a series of dry explanations, these are the collected stories and ideas of men. Though Melville, himself, only worked as a whaler for less than two years, he researched and compiled many different accounts to create his book. And these explorations of whaling, like the characters, all contribute to our understanding, they build meaning and help to color certain words and actions.
There are some terms which Melville likes to re-use throughout, and some of these seem to be stylistic oversights, but his repeated use of the term 'monomania' (monomaniacal, monomaniac) is a reference to a specific psychological condition, which is how Melville intends it to be taken, instead of as a simple description, so I don't count this as a 'favored word' of the author's but an example of specific use of a term.
Another of his experiments is to play around with the voice of the book, which starts as a first-person narrative by Ishmael, but also includes Shakespearean soliloquies and choral scenes (complete with stage directions) and a number of scenes which it seems impossible for Ishmael to have witnessed. As with most of the book, these are not obscure, nor do they make the action difficult to follow, they are just more example of Melville's playful experimentation.
Indeed, there is much of Shakespeare here, from the speeches of personal intent to the broad humor, the crew's sing-song banter, the melodramatic, grandiose characters, the occasional half-hidden sex joke, and the references to Biblical and Greek myth. But being a modern author, Melville's writing is easier to comprehend, particularly because much of his styling and pacing has passed into the modern form of books, movies, and television.
There are also some particularly beautiful passages where the prose begins to resemble poetry, and between the grotesque, funny characters and the thoughtful, careful writing in some scenes, I began to compare the work to The Gormenghast Novels, though while Peake maintains this style throughout, Melville often switches back and forth between styles and tones.
So, with all his mad switching about, his vast restlessness, Melville reveals that his own is more of a 'polymania'--an obsession with varying things--and while this does mean that his work has many errors, many experiments which didn't quite pan out, it also means that the book as a whole is completely full of remarkable, wonderful, funny, poignant, charming, exciting, thought-provoking, philosophical, historical, and scientific notions, so that even taking the flaws into account, there is just such a wealth of value in this book, so much to take away from it. And yet, don't worry about taking everything away--that's a fool's errand--Melville did his best to write what he could, trying not to worry about whether it was all perfect, so the least we can do is to be bold enough to read it as it is, and take what we can from it, without worrying whether we've gotten all of it.
Walk the beach, and do not worry about picking up every stone you see, but take a handful that please you and know that it was worth your while.(less)
This seems to be the quintessential Idiot Ball story, where the only thing working against the protagonist is his own constant short-sightedness, if n...moreThis seems to be the quintessential Idiot Ball story, where the only thing working against the protagonist is his own constant short-sightedness, if not head-slapping stupidity. This can be amusing enough, but Defoe constantly ignores promising plot-hooks in order to pursue Crusoe's thick-headedness undisturbed.
You'd think a survival scenario would provide a wealth of hardship, but, despite his constant panics, Crusoe has a rather easy time of it. Even more than this, every other character in the story rushes to Crusoe's aid, chumming up with him without a hint of interpersonal difficulty and remaining always loyal to him.
Then again, the plotting isn't elegant to begin with. We get the same stories and observations over and over, with the narrator telling us how he doesn't need to repeat what he's already told us, only to go on and do precisely that. His 'translations' of Friday's pidgin speech are likewise hilarious, proceeding along these lines:
"Many mans come from big boat", Said Friday, by which he meant that a group of men were disembarking from a ship.
Some have suggested that Crusoe's religious conversion in the book is meant to show the reader the noble truth of belief, but since Crusoe comes to his beliefs out of ignorance and fear, it's hardly a very convincing tract. It reads more like a satire of religion, following a thoughtless, superstitious man who believes chiefly because he is alone and afraid.
There are also a lot of little errors about animal behavior and tribal practices, showing that Defoe was more interested in sensational stories than in research. He even misrepresents animals that live in Europe, like bears, which he depicts as unable to outrun a man. He also portrays Friday as being familiar with bears, despite the fact that the only species of bear that lives in South America, the Spectacled Bear, lives only in the Andes, far away from coastal islands.
The book consistently reads as deliberately silly and overwrought, but good satire is often indistinguishable from poor writing. As far as prototypes for the novel are concerned, I'll take Quixote over Crusoe any day of the week, (and The Satyricon over both).(less)
There are a lot of Sea Stories out there, and this is one of the better-known, but it hardly outshines its genre. I found myself missing the humor and...moreThere are a lot of Sea Stories out there, and this is one of the better-known, but it hardly outshines its genre. I found myself missing the humor and vivid characterization of Conrad, not to mention the insightful philosophical asides. I also found it somewhat lacking as an adventure story, as the plot was somewhat simplistic and contrived, following the empty avatar of a narrator through various vicarious thrills.
There's nothing wrong with an escapist yarn, but a good one keeps you riveted with twists and turns, alternating verisimilitude and the unlikely. It's not as if it's a problem of period, either, since The Three Musketeers is one of the most rollicking and engrossing adventure stories ever written.
One must take into consideration the fact that Treasure Island is one of those genre-defining works which has been rehashed and plundered by a thousand authors since, until it is ingrained in our culture as The representation of piratical life. Like Neuromancer, many of the tropes and plot points might seem unoriginal, but that's only because they have been copied so frequently that we are no longer capable of recognizing their origin.
Yet, this isn't the case for all genre-defining works. The Virginian still stands out when compared with any other Western and The Moonstone remains unique despite all the Mysteries that have dutifully followed it. The difference is the author's verve and style, because even if later authors can copy his ideas, copying his style will prove beyond their skill. An author who is good enough to recreate another author's style already has a unique voice of their own.
It's curious to compare this with Poe's sole outing in the novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which has the voice and unpredictability Treasure Island lacks, but doesn't provide the same lilting tone or straightforward plot, leaving each as interesting artifacts in the genre, even if neither can claim to be a complete vision.
But then, it is often incomplete visions that provide the greatest inspiration, since they illuminate flaws and pitfalls, providing an outline for later authors and a caution of what should be avoided. Few people have come away from a book they couldn't possibly outdo feeling inspired to create, whereas reading a flawed but entertaining book can be the perfect jolt to a prospective author. But then, a book that inspires other authors to write could hardly help being the influential anchor from which the rest of a genre depends, so such flaws end up serving a purpose, if inadvertently.
What drew me to this book, more than anything, is my desire to understand the unique literary mind of Mervyn Peake, one of the most powerful authors in the English language. Peake often invoked this as a favorite book, and produced a powerful series of illustrations for it. In these illustratios, one begins to see what Peake took away from Stevenson, as an author.
While this is, to some degree, a story about simple characters, particularly the narrator, it is also a very dark tale, particularly for a children's classic. The death and deceit of the tale come out in Peake's drawings, as does the grotequerie.
This darkness is undeniably there, but truthfully, I barely noted it until I looked at Peake's vision. To some degree, Sea Stories always bear this kind of horror, a world of conflict, the unforgiving sea, headhunting cannibals, and death a cheap thing. Poe and Conrad each outdo Stevenson in unsettlement, but in different ways.
Poe's tends to be more purely visual, as is always his obsession in writing. It is the languid, lingering description that Poe gives to the leering face of a gull-bitten corpse that drives home the darkness of this life.
Conrad, on the other hand, gives us horror in the eyes of his characters. He doesn't shy away from the pure physicality of the unpleasant world, but where it lingers is in the mind's eye; visions which can never be erased, which will forever taint our everyday actions.
But Stevenson gives us neither. His adventure tale holds plenty of fear, but when young Jim murders a pirate, gruesome as it is, it rarely lingers either as vignette or psychological crack. Of course, he had a different notion of the maturity of a ten-year-old than we do today, where childhood lasts into the twenties, but we don't get the psychological progression we expect from a man coming to terms with death.
These moments and reflections are not entirely absent, but they tend to get lost in the fleeting, episodic style of the story. But I'm glad for Treasure Island, if only because it inspired Peake to expand upon this tale of a precocious boy drawn inexorably into a dark world of grotesque characters in his unfinished magnum opus, the Gormenghast series.(less)
There is something in the reader in me that constantly drives to seek out the unusual and inexplicable. Authors who try to achieve this effect deliber...moreThere is something in the reader in me that constantly drives to seek out the unusual and inexplicable. Authors who try to achieve this effect deliberately are always a bore, for the same reason that a man who wears a tophat as an affectation is always infinitely dull compared to the man who wears one unselfconsciously. Iconoclasm may owe its birth to the need for difference, but any iconoclast who fails to find a deeper inspiration is a rudderless rebel.
Difference is not, in itself, interesting or useful. It is only when a natural wellspring of inexplicable inspiration is yoked to an accessible sense of style and form that something remarkable can be set loose upon the world.
Once this unusual child has been encountered, the reader seeks to meet him again and again, often frequenting dark alleys, sarsen rings, harem gardens, and remote starboard tacks, hoping that by patronizing the demesne of strangeness, the denizens of strangeness might be more readily found.
Of course, strangeness has no truly familiar bower, and may crop up in the most mundane of places, and at the most unexpected times, so that after a fruitless week of searching for dark gods in cyclopean atolls, one is finally discovered in your wardrobe. Strangeness must be waited out, arriving and departing in its own ready time.
Poe is often invoked as a font of strangeness, but there is always something of an affectation about him. His poems are particularly guilty, since by reading one after the other, you can find the same rampant breed of domestic strangeness squeezing under the trochees and nibbling at synonyms for 'gloom'. In his poetry, Poe's morbidity is often too refined, too usual, and rarely surprising.
His short stories show some of the same threadbare symptoms, where images, actions, feelings, and plot elements are mulched, composted, and re-sodded as Poe twists back on himself, thumbing through the familiar seeds of his obsessions.
But like Peake and Bierce, Poe is capable of achieving the immaculate prose structure of the failed poet. He is nowhere as consistent as those two amazingly unusual men, but the grove of his imagination is certainly worth a few good strolls.
Though you see evidence of it in his poetry, in his best prose, Poe differentiates himself even from quite impressive writers when he engages in his passion for esoterica. His use of details, facts, and forms taken from life and placed in unusual, unpredictable world lends his worlds a particular kind of credibility.
Like Conrad, it is the real experiences which, as they frame the story, produce a sturdy setting for the gem to be crafted. The horror and strangeness need not be as remarkable when they are contrasted against a vivid world. A real world lends even the smallest odd turn a sort of believability that makes it more frightening than an overstated element of shock set in a less involved world.
Curious about this story is that Poe's real world facts are often more remarkable and surprising than his departures. Perhaps it shouldn't be unexpected, since truth is always stranger than fiction, but it's rare to find an author who is able to present the strangeness of both at once.
Unfortunately, Poe's realism here is often more overstated than subtle, moving in distinct sections. So, we get a short adventure, then a long period of slowly-building psychological horror, then an impersonal summary of nautical miscellanea. Poe might have more equally mixed his different styles instead of making them conspicuous by their separation.
The story takes the general form of the adventure narrative journal, as was so popular among the Sea Stories from which Poe's novella so clearly descends. This allows him leeway to include stories unrelated to the narrative itself, to break off into long digressions about nautical matters, and then, finally, to veer into the sort of unbelievable fish story that balances half-truths and legends into something too strange to believe, but too appealing not to repeat.
These sorts of stories have passed for truth, at one time or another, and been written into our very histories. The works of Marco Polo have no corresponding part in the diligent annals of Chinese history, suggesting he was no more an adventurer than Mandeville before him, and yet both of them were History, at least, for a time.
Poe's story also forms a part of our literary history, paving the way for the mix of horror and science fiction practiced by both Kipling and Lovecraft. Both of their styles profited from Poe's example, sometimes palpably, though their stories were more focused and cohesive.
In this unique story, Poe evokes something of both contemporaries Jules Verne and Herman Melville, though tellingly, Melville's autobiographical tales are sometimes stranger than the force of Poe's imagination, even with a passion for unpredictable strangeness to bolster it.
Poe's attempted novel is enjoyable and formative, but like much of his work, does not stand out above the wealth of unusual fiction of his busy century, and is an unpracticed mess compared to the men who took up the torch after him and refined horror into something much more structured, unsettling, and unusual.(less)
Kipling's is one of those imaginations which, slipping here and there, seems to plant the seeds for numerous books and genres yet to be devised. He wr...moreKipling's is one of those imaginations which, slipping here and there, seems to plant the seeds for numerous books and genres yet to be devised. He writes to pique, slowly twisting out his stories and drawing the reader along unexpected and unrecognized roads. Each tale might set the mind on a new and unusual tack, and hence, more than anything, Kipling is an author for authors: an author whose imagination is contagious.
His stories always center around the foreign mystery of his native-born India, but more than that, of the intersection of dry, Anglican Protestantism and vibrant, deadly, magical Hindu tradition. The Greeks long ago borrowed from the Indian mystics the ideas of the soul, of atomism, and asceticism, and since then, the West has adopted holy meditation, the scourge of the flesh, and the One God who is Many.
Kipling's cultural crossroads is not a new conflation, but a reintroduction of an old acquaintanceship. Many of his earlier stories present a kind of deniable magic: a magic which is only magical because it is unfamiliar, and which later finds a perfectly reasonable explanation. It is not hard to imagine such overgrown superstitions on the parts of the British, whose magical roots have been long straitlaced and sublimated, excepting ghost stories at Christmas.
In 'My Own True Ghost Story', we find a Britain who is obsessed with finding magic in India, and who comes to find it only because he looks for it everywhere. Kipling's works are full of such reversals of expectation, where it is not the 'alien magic of India' at fault, but the alien India which a foreigner wishes were true.
In his introduction, Neil Gaiman mentions the stigma of Colonialism that follows Kipling to this day. Kipling was representing the point of view of a ruling class descended from a foreign culture, but he is hardly dismissive of Indian culture or its traditions. Indeed, he does not try to make anything absurd out of Indian culture, nor does he try to represent it from the inside.
Though many may be content to declare him a racist and a colonialist because he was of the race of conquerors, that stance forgets that every nation has been conquered and sublimated by a series of various cultures, and that this should not invalidate the conquering culture any more than it invalidates the conquered culture. Even North America's native people wiped out a previous aboriginal population in staking their claim.
Gaiman is also one of the authors who shows a clear line of inspiration back to Kipling. The concept of his novel 'American Gods' is completely laid out in Kipling's 'The Bridge-Builders'. Likewise, one can find the roots of Gaiman and Pratchett's 'Good Omens' in Kipling's 'The Appeal', which also forms a background for C.S. Lewis' 'Screwtape Letters'. All three show the afterlife in terms of a purely British bureaucracy: polite and convoluted. Kipling also provides a scaffold for Gaiman's favorite: 'awkward fellow in an incomprehensible underbelly of horrifying magic'.
Yet these are not the only threads to be traced through Kipling. 'A Matter of Fact' is a proto-lovecraftian horror tale, if there ever was one, from the carefully-paced, skewed tone to the confessional style to the incomprehensible sea creatures and the alienating realization that the truth often has no place in the world of man.
The collection also includes a pair of science fiction tales, which are not Kipling's best work. The first, especially, is difficult to follow. His retro-future is barely comprehensible today, and he has made the most common mistake of the unskilled sci fi author: he explains too much. He spends much more time on describing his unusual, convoluted technologies than on imagining the sort of world they would produce.
The second, 'As Easy as ABC: A Tale of 2150 AD ', spends more time on plot, politics, and character, and if one makes it through the overwrought sections, one can see a prototype of 1984. The political tack of the story tries to tackle fascism versus democracy decades before it became a reality. While he does not have Verne's eye for the social impact of technology, he did succeed in making a remarkably forward-looking tale.
He also dabbles in metaphysical and psychic connections, trying to divine the nature of consciousness. In 'The Finest Story in the World', he presents a case of previous lives as the lively backdrop for a true Author's Story. The narrator obsesses with writing, talent, inspiration, and the eternally looming specter of Lost Perfection in a way which threatens to pull out the heart of any aspiring writer by its strings.
'The Brushwood Boy' deals with another obsession of the writer: the despair that there will never really be an audience who can comprehend you. Eventually, the tale collapses neatly into a paranormal love story, but its implications stretch far beyond its conclusion. 'Wireless' takes a technological tack in the question of whether there might be a universal source of human inspiration.
He also writes many more standard English Ghost stories, usually regarding mental breakdown and obsession, as in the 'The Phantom 'Rickshaw' or 'Sleipner, Late Thurinda'. Perhaps the most powerful of these is the seemingly innocuous 'They', which subtly and slowly builds a mood of thick unease without resorting to any tricks or shocks.
There are also the tales of a world which suddenly turns, growing stranger that the protagonist could have imagined, but without resorting to magic or the uncanny. Such stories as 'The City of Dreadful Night', 'Bubbling Well Road', 'The Strange Ride of Morrowby Jukes', and 'The Tomb of his Ancestors' ask us to accept a world which seems eminently possible, if unlikely. It is these stories that most stretch our horizons by asking us to imagine something which requires not a leap of faith, but merely a coincidence of remarkable circumstances or an unusual world view.
Kipling also has chance to show the humorists' pen in the Fish Story 'The Unlimited Draw of Tick Boileau' and in the uproarious farce "The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat', which rises in ever steeper climaxes of unimagined consequences until it begins to shake the high seat (and low comedy) of Wodehouse himself.
There are many other tales besides, from Fairy Stories to original Mythology (which Kipling fully realized in his lovely 'Just so Stories'), adventures, and even a mystery. Kipling's great wealth of production and imagination is daunting, but we may at least take comfort in the fact that his soaring wit is not the kind that overawes and dumbs us, but the sort which sets our mouths to laugh and call, and our minds to dance and twitter, or to fall suddenly into unknown and unrecognized depths in just the place we thought we knew the best.
He may lack the poetic turn of Conrad, the drive of Verne, or the harrowing of James, but neither could they lay claim to the far-ranging vivacity of that ingenuity that is, and remains, Kipling's.
Conrad should be known for more than 'Heart of Darkness'. As good a book as it is, it shows only a minute glimpse of what he is capable of. The delica...moreConrad should be known for more than 'Heart of Darkness'. As good a book as it is, it shows only a minute glimpse of what he is capable of. The delicacy, humor, wit, and sheer beauty he shows in this collection marks him as one of the most talented writers of his time, and with one of the most unique voices.
I at once compared him to Chekhov, for he shares with Chekhov a remarkable psychological insight, and hence is capable of constructing characters by merely hinting at notions and moods, or by what he doesn't show us. It is this deft characterization that allows realism to equal the strange vitality of truth, recalling that 'fiction' need not mean 'falsehood'.
But then it shouldn't surprise that Conrad has something reminiscent of Chekhov, as he was born in the Ukraine, and was familiar with the same tradition of stories, and storytellers, as well as the bittersweet, resigned humor of Eastern Europe. But that is not all there is to Conrad.
Along with the patented despair of the great Russian authors, Conrad possesses a lightness, a bawdy, earthy amusement, something that approaches wit, picking up the story and bearing it along, without crudely driving it, like some French oxen. Like Dumas, pere, Conrad is capable of writing an adventure, a story which ties together the improbable, the unfortunate, the miraculous, and the disastrous into something grand and amusing and ridiculous, but not without a touch of humanity and pain. But then, Conrad left the Ukraine at 18 to join the French merchant marine, so it should hardly surprise us that he picked up something there of wit and joie de vivre, even as he picked up the Gallic tongue.
Yet he wrote his stories in English, and his stories were not without an English touch. After all, he bears comparison to Haggard, Stevenson, and Melville, but more than them, Kipling. There is something often small and precise, undaunted about his characters that is British, and he writes of Horror like a Victorian, of the overawing force of the sublime.
But why should that surprise us? After all, he left France to join the English merchant marine, picked up a new language, and sailed up the Congo river in Africa for them, and by this point, he was a man of forty who hadn't written as much as a short story.
In Africa, he experienced a kind of Hell on Earth, a place of true demons, of suffering, of things unimaginable. Like Dante, he descended, ever on, and saw for the first time the terrible depths of the human heart. And he emerged.
Yet never the same, he had gained some insight, or lost some ideal there, and in all the future, could only see the world as a strange, tinted place, a satire, a place where pains and joys were small, yet refused to be overshadowed.
Perhaps it was here that he found his greatest talent: the ability to feel great beauty and great terror in every thing, every man, every sunset, every gust of wind and gesture. Conrad will surprise you. Not merely with his amusing, fraught characters, eccentric, varied stories, and moments of amusement, but with sudden, poignant, insightful visions of the world, visions both unerring and vast.
In a moment and a turn of phrase, Conrad suddenly opens the soul, and a deep sigh flows from the page like the breath of the Earth, a sigh of love that has seen love die, and a thousand times. There is something in his voice, something that is not merely Russian, or French, or English, but which moves between them, and rises above him, and is his voice, and his alone, and forever.
It is not ungainly, or unfamiliar, and yet it is not quite like anything else. It is not merely the English of the unpracticed man, or the knowledgeable foreigner, but of the man who has come to terms with his new language late, and comfortably, and who saw it for the first time with lined eyes.
They meet as two old people meet, already grown, already whole, and become lovers because it is easy, and it is pleasant. The laughs they share, for there is no reason not to, the pains they do not need to share, because they both know them well, already. He does not forget his past loves, nor does he pine for them. He loves now his new love, yet not simply because she is new.(less)
It's funny how many people feel intimidated by this book. Sure, it's thousands of years old, and certainly Greek culture has some peculiarities, but t...moreIt's funny how many people feel intimidated by this book. Sure, it's thousands of years old, and certainly Greek culture has some peculiarities, but the book is remarkably, sometimes surprisingly modern, and most translations show the straightforward simplicity of the story.
Perhaps like The Seventh Seal, The Odyssey has gotten a reputation for being difficult because it has been embraced by intellectuals and worse, wanna-be intellectuals. But like Bergman's classic film, The Odyssey is focused on action, low humor, and vivid characters, not complex symbolism and pretension.
It shouldn't really surprise us how modern the story seems, from it's fast-paced action to its non-linear story: authors have taken cues from it for thousands of years, and continue to take inspiration from it today. Any story of small people, everyday heroes, and domestic life we read today is only a few steps removed from Odysseus' tale.
Unlike the Iliad, this book is not focused on grand ideas or a grand stage. The characters do not base their actions on heroic ideals but on their emotions, their pains and joys, their grumbling bellies. It is less concerned with the fate of nations than the state of the family and friendship.
Since the story turns on whims instead of heroic ideals, it is much less focused than the Iliad, meandering from here to there in a series of unconnected vignettes drawn from the mythic tradition. Like The Bible, it is a combination of stories, but without a philosophical focus.
There are numerous recurring themes that while not concluded, are certainly explored. The most obvious of these may be the tradition of keeping guests in Greece. The most honorable provide their guests with feasts, festivals, and gifts. This seems mostly the effect of a noblesse oblige among the ruling class.
Like the codes of war or the class system, it is a social structure which benefits their rulership. Like the palace of Versailles of Louis XIV, keeping someone as a guest was a way to keep an eye on them and to provide camaraderie and mutual reliance amongst the fractitious ruling class.
The second theme is that of 'metis', represented by Odysseus himself. Metis is the Greek term for cunning. It is a quick-witted cleverness that is sometimes considered charming and other times deceitful. Achilles tells Odysseys in the Iliad that he resents the clever man's entreaties, and those of any man who says one thing but thinks another.
Odysseus later mimics this sentiment as part of an elaborate lie to gain the trust of another man. Such are the winding ways of our hero. He misleads his son, his wife, his servants, and his despondent father after his return, careful not to overplay his hand in a dangerous situation, arriving as a stranger.
Each of these prevarications can be seen sometimes as cruel, but each deception has a reasoning behind it. He uses his stories to carefully prepare his listeners for his return, instead of springing it upon them unwarned. He ensures that he will be received upon the most profitable terms, though he also enjoys the game of it all.
These acts of sudden, cruel cleverness are not uncommon in epics and adventure tales. One tale of Viking raiders tells of how, after sailing into the Mediterranean, their ship reached one of the cities of the Roman Empire. Though just a small outpost, the Viking chief thought it was Rome itself, since its stone buildings towered over the farms of his homeland.
He hid in a coffin with a wealth of swords and had his soldiers bear him into the town, telling the inhabitants they wished to make burial rights for their dead king. When they were let in, the coffin was opened, the swords passed around, and the city sacked. What is curious is that while warriors like the Greeks or Vikings maintained a strict sense of honor and honesty, this kind of trick was not only common in their stories, but admired.
The honor of the battlefield does not extend to the Trojan Horse (Odysseus' idea) or to the tale of Sinon in the Aeneid. The rule seems to be that if the tricks played are grand and clever enough, they are allowed, while small, mean pranks and betrayals are not. Not all the soldiers agree what is outsmarting and what is dishonorable (Achilles puts Odysseus in the latter camp), but there is a give and take there.
What is most remarkable about Odysseus is not merely that he comes up with these tricks, but that he passes them off on proud, honorable men without incurring their wrath. Moreover, he does all this while having a famous reputation for being tricky. You'd think he'd get an intentional walk now and then.
Odysseus was not as strong a character as Achilles or Hector were in the Iliad, though this may be because he was a complex character who did not rely on the cliche characterizations of 'the noble warrior'. He is not a man with a bad temper, nor a good one. He is a competent and powerful warrior and leader, but those are not his defining characteristics, either.
Odysseus represents the Greek ideal of 'arete' as well as metis. Arete is the idea that a man who is truly great should excel in all things, not merely concentrate on one area of life. Even raging Achilles showed the depth of his arete in the Iliad when he served as host and master of the games. He was capable of nobility, sound judgment, and generosity, even if he didn't always put his best foot forward.
Odysseus is likewise skilled in both war and domesticity, in the sword and politics, and he's clever and wily to boot. In the end, there isn't much room left over for negative character traits, which is what makes him feel a bit flat. What makes people interesting as individuals is not their best traits, but their worst.
For Odysseus, this is his pride. After spending twenty years of his life away at war, leaving his wife and infant son behind, it's not surprising that he wants to return home with wealth and with his name on the lips of poets and minstrels.
Between his pride, his easy smile, and his quick wit, he is the model for the modern action hero. He is not merely some chivalric picture of goodness, nor simply mighty and overwhelming, but a conflicted man with a wry sense of humor and above all, a will to survive.
Don't read this book simply because it is old, influential, and considered great. Read it because it is exciting and approachable and thoughtful. Even without all the reputation, it can stand on its own.
I read the Fagles translation, which was enjoyable and often lovely, though some modern idioms did slip in here and there. The Knox intro rehashes a lot of the introduction to The Iliad, but it's still very useful.(less)