You know, I was writing my blog post today – on a history topic, when I suddenly said, “Author of this blog, how is it in three and a half years, you write so infrequently about fiction?” It was a good question. I think it is because I slowly stopped reading much fiction about ten years ago when my favorite authors, mostly sept/octogenarian British authors, started slowing down to one book or so a year, or, at least their work that I wanted to read. I tried to like more modern novelists, but, whenever I’d be reading one, I’d often catch myself looking at a history book longingly. So, I came close to stopping - some years I've read none.
But, I love fiction. When I was moving to Virginia from New York, I was trying to keep myself to one big truckload. I had 32, or was it 34, cartons of books as it was, to pack for the ride, so I gave away hundreds of paperback novels which I thought I would never read again. It wasn’t easy, book obsessed person that I am. You can read about that little disaster in my March 6th, 2007 post - the sole work of fiction I've written for this blog.
Still there was another group of books that I tried to give away, but couldn’t -- for example, my beloved series of Nero Wolfe novels I promised to a friend, and then welshed on (Hey! How come that one escaped the sensitivity police’s hawk-like notice? It's just like saying “I Jewed him down on the price," but no one gets up in arms about it. I know there are Welsh descendents in our country - maybe they aren't culturally sensitive as a group.)
So, to prepare for this great post, I walked into my bedroom, where I have one six foot bookshelf filled with the novels I couldn’t bear to part with without suffering great pain, and have pulled out a bunch to discuss. Doing this actually seems to fulfill one of the underlying purposes of this blog, which is the less than noble enterprise of just giving me a chance to talk about books without the numbing experience of reading those I don’t want to read and then discussing them with people I probably don’t want to discuss them with in a real book club (I have a relative who at one point was a member of six book clubs. He says he likes the social aspects of it. I'd rather read a book, thank you very much).
Since I need the semblance of a theme for this (an obsession for which I can't fathom a purpose), these are great books of enduring reputation, but which many a casual modern reader might overlook during visits to Barnes & Nobles. But, to be more cynical, it is really just about some books I love I'd like to run by you and see if there is any interest. Why am I suited to do this? – no other reason than in my life of spectacularly few accomplishments, at least I can say I’ve probably read a thousand novels (I’m guessing, but “probably” is fair) and maybe three thousand books or more all told. I know that sounds Wilt Chamberlainish - remember his claim of having been with 20,000 women - but, I have hundreds of books in my house right now, probably six or seven, gave away hundreds more, and I know that is a fraction of those I've read (and no, I'm not bragging, because reading is easy; it's writing that's hard - there are thousands more for which I wish I had time). Ironically, I read much less now than ever, even though I have more time. I doubt I finish thirty books a year as I spend much more time playing with languages and researching than reading. As for novels – if I finish five a year now, it is probably a lot. I may start a few more than that, but time is too short and I don’t give one I don’t like more than 50 pages anymore (it used to be a hundred). Here we go:
1) For many years now I have sung the praises to whoever will listen of The Monk by Matthew Lewis, a contemporary of Mary Shelley, Byron, Goethe, The Brothers Grimm, and so on. Along with Frankenstein, it is one of the two great Gothic novels on my shelf, and probably any shelf. When it came out it caused a sensation and the author was subject to severe criticism. It was not only shocking and violent but it aroused great emotion among the simpering elite with its extremely unorthodox handling of sex for the time. Even now, over two centuries after it was written, I found myself deeply engrossed in the sexual drama and I didn’t escape being shocked, even in this age of anything goes. It is a startling book and your emotions will run the gamut, even to deep disappointment that what you expected to happen, didn't. The author did not invent the Gothic novel – he was actually imitating Ann Radcliffe, but he was just 19 at the time he wrote it, which is impressive in any era.
Of course, it's a gothic novel and that means melodrama. I read a few pages of it today and I have to admit some of it reminded me of really bad episodes of Smallville I’ve seen on tv lately. Yet, remember, it is Lewis, Radcliffe and Shelley who are being imitated still, daily, on television, in other books and in movies. Although The Monk is a brilliant book, still published and loved by some, it is one I can’t understand why it is not more famous to the general public. It is, as much as anything, great fun, despite the terror and topics. It would make an electrifying movie, but, possibly - it is just too uncomfortable. Here’s a quote from it. Picture the organ music as you read about the villains plotting the abduction of the heroine:
In a few days She will be removed to the Palace of her Relation, the Marquis de las Cisternas, and there She will be secure from your attempts. Thus during your absence have I been informed by my Spies, who are ever employed in bringing me intelligence for your service. Now then listen to me. There is a juice extracted from certain herbs known but to few, which brings on the Person who drinks it the exact image of Death. Let this be administered to Antonia: You may easily find means to pour a few drops into her medicine. The effect will be throw her into strong convulsions for an hour: After which her blood will gradually cease to flow, and heart to beat; A mortal paleness will spread itself over her features, and She will appear a Corse to every eye. She has no Friends about her . . . “
2) It is 1926. Eleven years before Tolkien published the Hobbit an English civil servant named E. R. Eddison came out with a remarkable fantasy novel by the name of The Worm Ouroboros. It is not grounded in linguistics and a deep understanding of mythology and history the way Tolkien’s work would be in coming years, but it itself a rollicking work of sword play, gallantry, knighthood, fantasy, magic, political maneuvering and just plain evil, and written in a unique style by a master craftsman.
To show you just how good it is, let me quote from Tolkien himself: “I read the works of Eddison, long after they appeared; . . . In spite of all of which, I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing writer of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read.” Tolkien was a very tough critic, who would even pan some of his friend's efforts, did not like the names Eddison used for used for characters and places (but that was almost everything to the linguistically fanatic Tolkien - he really didn't seem to like almost any author's "nomenclature" other than his own) and he also said he disliked Eddison's personal philosophy. But, especially given all that, this has to be the gold standard for recommendations for any fantasy writer there ever was. It's like Shakespeare saying he thought you wrote the best plays.
Tolkien was right. Eddison was that good at story telling and picturesque writing. There is only one small flaw. He could have put his characters in the North of Europe or even in an imaginary remote land in Africa as others had done before him. For some reason he decided to put the story on the planet Mercury, and most unfortunately, the first 20 or so pages is at least partially taken up with drivel as a stuffy British adventurer enters a dream state and is transported there (don't worry; he quickly disappears forever once the action starts). But get through that, because the rest of the book is just "rip roaring," like the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, except it is a war between witches and demons and the like instead of Nazis and Americans. I set aside The Iliad and The Lord of the Rings. And I haven’t read War and Peace. But, I doubt any other war in literature has been written so engagingly, beautifully and playfully. Here’s a taste of Eddison. All I did was open a page at random. Feel his language roil your senses as he merely sets a scene:
While they climbed, white wispy clouds which had gathered in the high gullies of Ailinon in the morning had grown to a mass of blackness that hid all the mountains to the west. Great streamers ran from it across the gulf below, joined and boiled upward, lifting and sinking like a full-tided sea, rising at last to the high ridge where the Demons stood and wrapping them in a cloak of vapour with a chill wind in its fold, and darkness at broad noon-day. They halted, for they might not see the rocks before them. The wind grew boisterous, shouting among the splintered towers. Snow swept powdery and keen across the ridge. The cloud lifted and plunged again like some great bird shadowing them with its wings. From its bosom lightning flared from above and below. Thunder crashed on the heels of the lightning, sending the echoes rolling among the distant cliffs. Their weapons, planted in the snow, sizzled with blue flame.
Now, if you ask me, he writes as well or better than Tolkien himself (who could, after all, be quite melodramatic), although the Lord of the Rings still stands alone for reasons I've written about here too many times to go into now. But, in case you aren’t into fantasy at all, we’ll move along.
3) In my mind, no American writer of fiction was as great as Mark Twain. I won’t bother with the encyclopedia like recital of his works, or even go on about his endless supply of aphorisms and witticisms which I frequently quote – all that and more you can find on the web.
Naturally, you know Twain is as famous as they get, so you might wonder why I include him. It's because so few people I know seem to have gotten around to having read his literal roasting of mankind in his unparalleled Letters from the Earth (I actually took a poll in 1984 or '85 when I first read it. I forget how many people I asked, but not one of them had read it). It not only wasn’t published in his lifetime, probably because he liked having a career, but even in 1939, when it was first ready for publication, his daughter and literary executor protested it would give people the wrong idea about him and they pulled it. It was not until 1962, when she was still alive, that she gave in.
I’ll muddle into Satan’s first letter home from his banishment on earth and then jump around a little:
This is a strange place, an extraordinary place, and interesting. There is nothing resembling it at home. The people are all insane, the other animals are all insane, the earth is insane, Nature itself is insane. Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very very best he is sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm. Yet he blandly and in all sincerity calls himself the “noblest work of God.” This is the truth I am telling you. And this is not a new idea with him, he has talked it through all the ages, and believed it. Believed it, and found nobody among all his race to laugh at it.
Moreover – if I may put another strain upon you – he thinks he is the Creator’s pet. He believes the Creator is proud of him; he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes, and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to Him, and thinks He listens. Isn’t it a quaint idea? Fills his prayers with crude and bald and florid flatteries of Him, and thinks He sits and purrs over these extravagancies and enjoys them . . . .
* * *
For instance, take this sample: he has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse!
* * *
His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists utterly and entirely—of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like in heaven. . . .
I could go on all night just with this one scrumptious book, but I'm sure you get the idea, and on we move to . . .
4) Jim Thompson! Who, you ask? Let me give you a critic's comment on After Dark, My Sweet (the Washington Post review) – “If Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich could have joined together in some ungodly union and produced a literary offspring, Jim Thompson would be it.”
I can’t tell you why Thompson’s name is not known today like Chandler and Hammett (Woolrich was great – he wrote the short story, for instance, that became Rear Window – but he was not Thompson either) even though a couple of movies have been made from his tough, scary, enervating, pulp fiction works. His books are really short too, so you’d think everybody would want to read them. Perhaps Chandler and Hammett are the kings of the genre – I can live with that. I loved those two guys – probably read every single book they've written. But, the truth is, I find Thompson far more riveting.
I have three Thompson novels on my shelf, The Criminal, probably his most acclaimed work - The Killer Inside Me, the second filming of which is supposed to come out this year and After Dark, My Sweet. I don't own The Getaway, which has twice been made into a movie. But, the most memorable thing he ever wrote for me was a short story or novella (unfortunately, the name of it escapes me) that starts with the protagonist waking up, tied to a bed, legs spread open, with a growling pit bull poised between them awaiting his owner’s command. Now that’s a way to start a story. I'll go light with the examples, because I know I can't give you an idea of his style as well I can the other selections here. That's because Thompson's books are driven by the plot (although much less complicated than Chandler's) and the characters, mostly bad guys, gals and assorted crazies, and it takes time to get to know their idiosyncracies and viciousness, but those are the elements that make it so good. But, there was always a scariness about the people in this story, who are just a bit off:
“[A]ll at once I heard Johnnie’s voice:
‘Hello, you lovely people. I’m certainly having a fine time, and I wish you were here. See you soon.’
Yes, it was Johnnie, speaking that sharp smart-alecky way he used a lot. I jumped up from the bunk and started turning around and looking up and down and sideways. And here his voice came again:
‘Hello, you lovely people. I’m certainly having a fine time, and I wish you were here. See you soon.’
Thompson is not for the feeble hearted or the politically correct who think being a good person means you can’t enjoy reading about horrible people doing terrible things to each other. Let me give you just a bit more so you can see what I mean:
“No, baby,” – my lips drew back from my teeth – “I’m not going to hurt you. I wouldn’t think of hurting you. I’m just going to beat the ass plumb off of you.”
I said it, and I meant it and I damn near did.
I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.
Can you even really tie someone's feet together with sleeping shorts? I better leave off there before the thought police get me for violating the imaginary violence against women's act. But, don’t think Thompson was a psycho misogynist; many characters get their just desserts - even those who don't richly deserve it - in his stories, not just the women. He takes on violence and cruelty in a way that other pulp fiction writers Chandler and Hammett would not have the stomach for and he does it with flare. Andrew Vachss is his true literary heir these days, and Quentin Tarantino on film.
5) There could be a fourth to my Hammett/Chandler/Thompson trio, but this guy really is in a class by himself, and the opposite of the hardboiled Thompson approach. I’m referring to the utterly unique Damon Runyon, probably now most famous for his short story that led to the best musical ever - I said EVER – Guys and Dolls.
Runyon, also a sports writer for Hearst, didn’t just write about gangsters, he created a genre for them – the colorful Broadway tough guy mini morality play – and filled it up all by himself, because nobody else could really duplicate the way he wrote, almost entirely in the present tense and with his own imaginative slang. Runyon knew gangsters and gamblers, liked them and created a fun world around them.
Unlike Thompson, whose stories were propelled by the action and the characters, in Runyon’s world, the characters are mostly of the same type, big dumb goons and sweet, but not so classy broads, with few exceptions, but it is the dialogue that sparkles and lights up the page. Here are but a few examples. First, my favorite, from the classic The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown (the main inspiration for Guys and Dolls):
“Son,” the old guy says, “you are now going out into the wide, wide world to make your own way, and it is a very good thing to do, as there are no more opportunities for you in this burg. I am only sorry,” he says, “that I am not able to bank-roll you to a very large start, but,” he says, “not having any potatoes to give you, I am now going to stake you to some very valuable advice, which I personally collect in my years of experience around and about, and I hope and trust you will always bear this advice in mind.
“Son,” the old guy says, “no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get, always remember this: some day, somewhere,” he says, “a guy is going to come to you and and show you a nice brand new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son,” the old guy says, “do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.”
Everything Runyon wrote makes it seem like you were walking into a live version of a joke that starts off with "Two guys are sitting at a bar, and . . . " but it goes on for pages without ever getting stale. Here’s how he starts So You Won’t Talk!:
It is along about two o’clock of a nippy Tuesday morning, and I am sitting in Mindy’s Restaurant on Broadway with Regret, the horse player, speaking of this and that, when who comes in but Ambrose Hammer, the newspaper scribe, and what is he carrying in one hand but a big bird cage, and what is in this bird cage but a green parrot.
Regret, the horse player, appeared in more than one story. He is the avatar for Runyon’s best friend until he actually got bumped off in a hit one day. But, why dwell on bad news when Runyon is always making me smile. Here’s a conversation form Barbecue:
Anyway, when he sees there is no hope for him in a musical career, Homer has to find something else to do and what he does is the best he can, which is one thing and another, and he is explaining to me in the Sharkskin Grill that even doing the best he can, he is not doing so good, when in comes a fuzz by the name of Finnegan, a fuzz being a way of saying a plain-clothes copper, who steps up to Homer and speaks to him as follows:
“Homer, the chief of police will consider it a favor if you will kindly bid us farewell.”
“Why?” Homer says. “What is his idea?”
“Does the chief of police have to have one?” Finnegan asks.
“No,” Homer says, “by no means and not at all. I am just wondering.”
“Well,” Finnegan says, “when he first mentions your name he requests me to bring you in because it seems a large touch comes off in West Palm Tuesday night and right away the chief thinks of you. But,” Finnegan says, “I remember seeing you in the police station all night Tuesday night trying to square that traffic violation, so you cannot also be in West Palm and when I speak of this to the chief he says all right but to suggest your departure anyway. You may thank me if you wish.”
How can you not like these thugs?
Like the spirits of Christmas, I was hoping to do this post all in one night, but time being what it is, it flew, and I shall have to split it in two like Solomon’s baby, and give you the rest in the merry month of May. Back to history next week. But, I’m glad I rustled through the fiction a bit, for old times sake.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .