Thursday, November 28, 2013

The mostly forgotten

This is a second post about the list of a hundred best novels selected by a literary critique Clement K. Shorter in 1898. I’m not familiar with the next five books on it and only know one of the authors, Robert Louis Stevenson. I haven’t read the book chosen from him, The Master of Ballantrae (1889). Modern readers remember him by Treasure Island (1883) or The Strange Case of Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde (1886), though as a short story, the latter probably wouldn’t make on similar lists.

I haven’t read the books, but since I’m probably not alone in this, I’ll mention them anyway. The books may not be interesting, but the author of the book number 99 definitely is. Reuben Sachs (1889) was written by Amy Levy, of whom Wikipedia mentions her feminist positions, engagement with homosexual romance, and suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide. Clement K. Shorter must have been more open-minded than the men of his time in general to include her. That, or he truly liked her book that was concerned with Jewish identity and mores in the England of her time”. 

Black but Comely was a 1879 novel by a Scottish novelist G. J. Whyte-Melville. He was a productive writer of historical novels, none of which have interested modern audience so much that they would have made a mention of them in Wikipedia. Equally forgotten is P.G. Hamerton, an English artist and art critic who wrote two novels. Shoreter has chosen Marmone, which Hamerton published as Adolphus Segrave in 1877.

The first translated book on the list is Fromont Junior and Risler Senior. It was written by a French author Alphonse Daudet in 1874, and it was translated into English in 1894. It was the novel that made Daudet famous and he was hailed as a great author already in his lifetime so it’s presence on the list isn’t surprising.

After five unknown books, the sixth is more familiar: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1868, first English translation 1885). Not that I have read it either, but it’s one of those books I feel I ought to read. I’ve tried, even.

I went through a Russian classics phase at seventeen and waded through a couple of easier ones. I started to read Crime and Punishment a couple of times too, but I never managed more than tenth of it before giving up. Mostly because I was hopelessly lost with all the characters.

Perhaps I ought to give it another try. Of the hundred books on the list, counting from the bottom, it is the first one that has retained its value to our days. As you’ll see later, there aren’t many of those on Shorter’s list. But more on that next week.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

News from Nowhere

A list of a hundred best novels has been circulating the Internet. What makes this one stand out among many similar lists is that it was compiled by an English literary critic Clement K. Shorter in 1898 and it contains many books that most people have never heard of. Tastes in books have changed greatly in a century, which explains some differences, but it has a lot to do with his method of selecting the books too.

Shorter accepted only one book per author and he didn’t select books from authors who were still alive. This excluded such great names as Jules Verne, Leo Tolstoy, and Mark Twain. The list is chronological so within it the books haven’t been given any preference. Often he has selected the first novel the author has written despite there being many better to select from.

While some books on the list have retained their value, many have completely disappeared. The oldest book on it, Don Quixote (1604), is still popular today. But Shorter had chosen delightfully many books written by women and many of them are among those that time has forgotten.

Although this blog is about the books that I have read, and I haven’t read most of those on Shorter’s list, I thought to go through it during the next few weeks. Not in detail though, and the emphasis will be on the books that I’ve actually read.

One of those is the last – and thereby the newest – book on the list, William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1891). It doesn’t often appear in modern equivalents. It was a relatively new book so perhaps it had novelty value. However, it was overshadowed at the time of its publication by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887), a veritable bestseller. Morris’s book was written as an answer to Bellamy’s and the books are fairly similar so why the first was chosen over the latter is a mystery. Perhaps Shorter favoured his countryman, or maybe Bellamy, who died in May 1898, was still alive at the time the list was made and so was excluded.

News from Nowhere (or an Epoch of Rest) is a socialist utopia set in 21st century London. The protagonist, William Guest (a clever name there) wakes up one morning to find himself in the future. He sets out to study his new surroundings and is very impressed by what he sees. Labour has ceased to be painful so people work joyously. Moreover, work is recycled so that people do both manual labour and creative tasks like writing poetry. Everyone is expected to do all kinds of work and they do it happily.

Morris’s utopian society is an idyllic place where the industrialisation has been stopped and the world has returned to a kind of pseudo medieval, agrarian society. Since the industry has ceased from polluting, the nature has recovered too; an important theme in the book. It’s possible to swim in the Thames, which was unheard of in Morris’s time. Beauty is valued above everything else, which isn’t surprising. Morris is best known today from his textiles and tapestries he patterned after a romanticised medieval ideal and that is evident in his utopia too.

It’s difficult to see why Morris’s book has ended up on the list. It’s written in the form of a medieval chivalric romance that must have seemed old-fashioned already a decade later. It’s not a terribly interesting book either. Perhaps the notion of a clean London has appealed to Shorter who had to suffer the worst consequences of British industrialism. Perhaps, only a decade after its publishing, Morris’s vision of the future seemed plausible. Or, it could be that Shorter simply liked the book. Whatever the reason, modern time has largely forgotten Morris’s book. Perhaps rightly so.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Behind Sherlock

As I mentioned last week, I’ve never really read Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books. I love Sherlock Holmes in all the visual incarnations, but I’ve only read The Hound of Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet. And even though especially the latter is filled with classic Holmes moments, it’s not among my favourite books.

Arthur Conan Doyle created an iconic and memorable character that can be re-invented for the modern audiences and still retain his essence. Considering the state of criminal investigation at the time he wrote the books, he was ahead of his times. A physician himself, he gave his character the analytical mind needed in detective work. Moreover, he wasn’t beyond trying detective work in his own life.

Julian Barnes: Arthur and George
The fascinating story of Conan Doyle as a detective is at the core of Julian Barnes’ book Arthur and George (2005). It’s not a historical account, it’s a novel based on the lives of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a part biography and a part detective story. George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor from Birmingham, was wrongfully committed of a bizarre crime of farm animal slashings in 1903, the so called Great Wyrley Outrages. He was released, but not pardoned, in 1906. Conan Doyle, convinced of Edalji’s innocence set out to clear his name and after eight months of detective work managed to have Edalji exonerated. He didn’t, however, discover who was really behind the deeds, although he was convinced it was a local butcher’s boy named Royden Sharp. No one else was convicted.

As far as biographies go, even those that spring partly from the author’s imagination, Arthur and George is interesting. Two people of seemingly different worlds, though subjects of the same country, are connected by a court case and nothing else. Most of the book follows their separate lives and nothing suggests they might meet one day until they do.

Of the two, Conan Doyle gets more space. He leads the more interesting life by far and undoubtedly there have been more sources to his life too. Edalji, however, gets a more sympathetic portrayal. Not only is he wrongly accused, his entire life has been struggle against racial prejudice and malign, despite which he has managed to carve himself a place in society, albeit small. If it hadn't been for the trial, he would have been forgotten.

Arthur and George is a window to two very different sides of British culture. Those sides are not limited to the early 20th century either. They reflect the modern Britain too – a liberty Julian Barnes has been able to take writing a novel instead of historical biography. Racism and class structure, the possibilities and treatment people get because of their place in society are all themes that reflect the present day too.

Eventful though Conan Doyle’s life was, he wasn’t nearly as intriguing a character as he was able to create himself. Edalji’s tragic life would have made a fascinating book on its own, especially if Barnes had taken more liberties with filling in the unknowns. As a whole, it’s a somewhat unbalanced book, long stretches of it being about Conan Doyle. Eventually, Edalji is put aside completely, faded to obscurity once more. And in the end Conan Doyle, too, is remembered from Sherlock Holmes, not the man he helped to exonerate.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The best crime writer there is

Agatha Christie was chosen for the all-time best crime writer by the Crime Writers Association this week. The same poll declared Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle the best ever series. I like them both. However, while I’ve read many of Christie’s books, I’ve only ever read The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet by Conan Doyle. For me, Sherlock Holmes has always been better in visual form – any version, I’m not choosy. Christie, however, is enjoyable in both. 

I binge-read Christie’s books when I was maybe fifteen or so. I read every book of hers my local library had, and if there weren’t any unread ones when I went to get more, I would read one of them again. I continued this until I was fed up. I don’t recall having a favourite among them, but I read And Then There Were None more often than others. I should mention, too, that not all her books were available in my language or in my local library so I haven’t read them all.

One would think that a mystery loses its charm the moment one knows the killer, but that doesn’t happen with Christie’s books. More importantly, I don’t think finding out who did it is what draws readers to her books in the first place. Her two wonderful characters alone, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, with their idiosyncrasies, are a reason to return to the books.

And although this is a reading blog, I have to admit that I love all the movies and TV series based on her books that I’ve seen too. David Suchet is perhaps my favourite Poirot, but I think I’ve liked all the actresses who have portrayed Miss Marple.

What then, makes a good crime novel? Christie’s books are character driven, filled with interesting, funny and bizarre people who all have secrets to hide – all of which are revealed one by one as the story unravels, keeping the reader guessing till the last page. The murderer is never who I expect it to be, but I must admit that the extremely elaborate plot in Death on the Nile remains my favourite; as a movie too, the 1978 version with Peter Ustinov as Poirot.

Once I was over my Christie binge, I left crime novels behind, hers and everyone else’s. I don’t think I’ve picked a crime novel above a handful of times since. I like a bit of mystery in all my reading, but crime novels for their own sake haven’t felt like worth my while. Perhaps I read too many of them at once. Perhaps no other crime writer has intrigued and entertained me as well as Christie has. I guess, for me, she is the best crime writer there is.

Here, to leave you with style, the trailer for the Death on the Nile: