Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Salieri Reads Literature

Most of you are aware (or could probably guess) that I read a lot. Almost everything I read is non-fiction. I think it's because I'm not very good at suspending disbelief. When reading fiction, I don't imagine the characters, living and struggling and loving: I imagine the authors, telegraphing plot points and fleshing out their outlines. Nevertheless, I decided to give some Real Literature a chance, instead of my usual diet of history and reference. Here are the results.

Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser
"I take some pride when I think back to that moment; while the others started forward instinctively to aid McNaghten, I alone kept my head. This was no place for Flashman..."
Harry Flashman (not to be confused with Flash Man) is a drunken bully who gets kicked out of Rugby in 1839. With nothing else to do, he buys a commission in the Royal Army, and begins his meteoric rise, in which he serves in practically every military conflict of the 19th century and distinguishes himself with his cowardice, cruelty, and whoring. The first book covers his service in Afghanistan, and I don't think I'll be reading the rest of them. "Flashman" gets its comedy from its situations, and I prefer authors who make the words funny.

Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh
"I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate crashers and Archie Schwert and people like that, all shouting at us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving - and then I used to crash and wake up."
Our hero, Adam Fenwick-Symes, is a writer who's looking for enough money to marry the aristocratic Nina Blount. They drift from extravagant party to extravagant party as their social circle of Bright Young Things shrinks. I'd read Waugh's short stories before, and the most striking thing about his style is that his protagonists are practically blank slates. They don't talk much, and we never hear their thoughts. It's strange and alienating, but once you get used to it, his books are entertaining (but watch out for occasional racism).

I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Robert Graves
"This is a confidential history. But who, it may be asked are my confidants? My answer is: it is addressed to posterity."
Emperor Claudius leaves an account of the events from the establishment of the Empire to his reign (in "I, Claudius") and the events of his reign (in "Claudius the God"). Graves makes use of one of my least favorite narrative devices, the prophecy. It's the clumsiest form of foreshadowing ever invented, and when the Sibyl tells Claudius that his story will be heard "some nineteen hundred years from now," I rolled my eyes. That said, "Claudius the God" is the better book. "I, Claudius" is plagued by Livia, the invincible villainess, whose inevitable victories drag the plot down. "Claudius the God" features Herod Agrippa, whom Graves portrays as a kind of ancient Jewish Han Solo - and really, any book could use a Han Solo type.

Prejudices, 1st Series by H.L. Mencken
Okay, Mencken's not really literature so much as he's a literature critic, but his criticism is full of what I like to see in writing - zingers. Try some of these on for size:
• On Vachel Lindsay: "…his elephantine college yells have ceased to be amusing."
• On Ezra Pound: "Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats."
• On Thorsten Veblen: "The learned professor gets himself enmeshed in his gnarled sentences like a bull trapped by barbed wire, and his efforts to extricate himself are quite as furious and spectacular… at times he seems to be at the point of yelling for the police."
• On America: "Our function, we choose to believe, is to teach and inspire the world. We are wrong. Our function is to amuse the world."
He's also a good guide to authors you may not have heard of. He pointed me to George Ade, whose "Fables in Slang" is kind of a predecessor to James Thurber's modern fables. And it's a great window into the past - especially when you see Mencken argue very seriously against democracy.

Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks
"'The sound of tungsten,' Uncle Dave would say, 'nothing like it.'"
Again, not strictly fiction: it's a strange combination of memoir (Dr. Sacks, growing up in a family of scientists in the UK in the 30s through the 50s - the titular uncle runs a light bulb manufacturer) and chemistry textbook (the stories of famous scientists and their experiments, many of which inspired the young Oliver). If you liked Mr. Wizard, you'll probably like this book.

Petropolis, Anya Ulinich
"Just under the buildings' cornices, meter-high red letters spelled: GLORY TO THE, SOVIET ARMY, BRUSH TEETH, AFTER EATIN, WELCOME TO, ASBESTOS-2, and MODEL TOWN! Whoever painted the slogans had been less concerned with their meaning than with the finite number of bricks in each facade."
Our heroine this time is Sasha Goldberg, a black Jew from Siberia. Her father snuck away to America many years ago, and she becomes a mail-order bride and goes in search of him. As far as I can tell, the portrait of Siberia is genuine, and the portrait of the immigrant experience is genuine, but the book starts to run off the rails as soon as Sasha arrives in Chicago. There's no way an immigration lawyer makes enough money to support the lifestyle the one in the book does, and the romantic subplot just plain sucks.

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