Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Hagiwara's Review of Books

Every once in a while, I try to fill in a lacuna in my literary perspective, and go back to read some 'classics'. This is 'classics' in the sense of 'stuff we all know from watching cartoons', not anything that's necessarily any good. Stuff by dead white men. You know. "Things I should have read by now."

In the past, this has included a number of real stinkers. Two Towers, Last of the Mohicans, and Moby Dick come screamingly to mind.

This time, I went for 'less literary and more popular', I suppose. Inspired by the graphic novel version(s) of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I decided to explore that speculative/pre-science-fiction/proto-pulp-adventure genre from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Haggard, Verne, Wells. That sort of thing. I know there's a name for this genre but I'm not sure what it is.

I haven't actually tackled Haggard yet. But I managed to get through some classics anyway: Verne's Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth; Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde; Well's Island of Dr Moreau; and of course Dracula by Stoker and Frankenstein by Shelley.

Here's how stupid I am. I didn't know Verne was French. I mean, I knew he was French. I didn't realize he wrote in French. I mean, except for Passepartout (the comical sidekick in 80 Days), his characters aren't French, and so for his stories don't take place in France. Harry (the narrator of Journey) is English, raised by his German uncle (the 'hero') and most of the story takes place in or under Iceland (except for the parts that seem to take place under Scotland). Fogg in 80 Days, of course, is English and most of the story takes place in English controlled (or speaking) parts of the world--Egypt (at the time), India, SE Asia (which isn't so much English speaking, but there's plenty of English influence around, what with Formosa and Singapore and so on, and most of this is on a boat) and the US. I haven't read any of the Nemo books yet (although I may, one day, although I understand they're darker and just not as much fun as the others), but he's a Sikh from India, and of course the stories take place underwater.

Okay, so Jekyll and Hyde is a pretty good story. And everything you've heard about it is true--except that Hyde is actually not a huge monster. He's actually fairly slight but very vicious. But the semi-Freudian, unchecked desire/suppression/sublimation themes are all there. Jekyll is actually not a particularly sympathetic character either.

Dracula and Frankenstein were completely unexpected. I actually enjoyed them both. Dracula is definitely the better read, from the thriller point of view. It's also more skillful, in that it's epistolary (told in letters and diary entries), which is much harder to pull off, especially if you're writing a thriller and you have to generate a sense of urgency. Frankenstein is also epistolary, but the novel is is narrated (via diary entries) by a narrator telling Victor's story as Victor tells it to him. It's a little too self-conscious in its exploration of humanity and loneliness and beauty and evil and so on. Also it resembles not at all any of the popular cartoon versions of the story. The 'monster' is, as I expected, sympathetic. But in the novel he's actually very articulate. Calculating, and amoral, I suppose, but that's rather the point. I mean, I knew that the title Frankenstein refered to Victor (the creator of the 'monster') and not the monster, but I didn't realize that the whole point of the book is Victor's dilemma (having created the creature he hates and fears, and vowing to destroy it, and his self-justification of all his horrible choices in the matter) and not the calculated revenge the creature takes on Victor. The monster is amoral but honorable, in a weird way. Just wants to get along. Victor is just reprehensible. Cowardly. Selfish. Egotistical. But there are no villagers or torches or anything. It's just one moral quandary after another.

This is all bedtime reading. During the day I have work stuff to read. Not that I do, but I found in college if I read work before bed I end up falling asleep if I try to read work during the day. So before bed, I read junk. By which I mean 'for pleasure'. Now I'm in the middle of Canterbury Tales. Which I'm reading just so I can say I have, since I use the first lines of the prologue in my biennial "History of English in 45 minutes" lecture. That and there's a series of novels based on the characters of the pilgrims in Tales by an author I like that I may tackle one day. But not for a while. I'm getting tired of all this 'literature'. The next read is definitely going to be from the 'trashy mystery novel' category. I'm behind a couple of Janet Evanoviches and Tim Cockeys. Not to mention a couple of Martha Grimeses. Although I'm getting a little tired of those.

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