Thursday, 29 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 2: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1943)

The third book in a row, in this series, that I have loved egregiously since childhood. Indeed, of all the books on this strange list, it is surely the most intrinsically lovable. In this blogpost I have two points to make, one serious (or at least 'serious') and a little complicated; the other simple but profound. And that latter point has already been made, but bears repeating. This is a book that provokes love. I love its invention, its wit, its gentleness and wisdom; I love the little prince himself. When I was a child myself I felt in my heart the rightness of its mutual perspectives upon childishness and adulthood, and the losses of passing from the former state to the latter -- like a warmer, funnier, more charming version of Wordsworth's 'Immortality Ode'. That, shown a picture of a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, grown-ups can only see a hat.  That grown-ups are besotted with material data. To quote from the English-language edition I read as a kid, and which I in turn read to my kids:
Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you about essential matters. They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?" Instead they demand: "How old is he? How many brothers has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?" Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him. [16]
Of course I take the force of Saint-Exupéry's point here, although at the same time -- without the least hint of snark -- if my son came home saying 'I have made a new friend' and I replied How much does he weigh? I would get some very strange looks from my fellow grown-ups. The passage continues:
Say to the grown-ups: "I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof," and they would not be able to get any idea of the house at all. You would have to say to them: "I saw a house that cost £4000." Then they would exclaim: "Oh, what a pretty house that is!"
This, I feel, would be unlikely to be their 2011 reaction. Four grand for a house? It's like playing Monopoly. The kids enjoy the game, and the adults spend their time picking up cards, saying '"Solicitors Fee £50"? Oh HAHAHA!' and '"School Fees Due: £150"? I SHOULD COCOA!' and falling about clutching their sides.

But I'm getting distracted. Not only do I love this book, I love Saint-Exupéry himself, surely of all the authors of this list the most fundamentally likeable: a pioneer aviator and a righteous man. I love that although he was a patriot, who died (probably) defending his country against the Nazis, he was nonetheless deeply opposed to war (in 1942's Pilote de guerre he wrote: 'la guerre n'est pas une aventure. La guerre est une maladie. Comme le typhus.'). I love that he recognised fascism for the great evil it was early on; and I love that he championed the bravery and skill of his fellow pilot Jean Israël in the teeth of contemporary anti-Semitism (Pilote de guerre was banned in Vichy France, Saint-Exupéry's own country, because of this). And I love the fact that, instead of looking like a lantern-jawed, aquiline-profiled, muscular man-of-action stereotype, Saint-Exupéry actually looked like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

Most of all, like millions, I love the message of this beautiful little book.  As the fox puts it, 'On ne voit bien qu'avec le cœur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.' The only way to see properly is with the heart.  The most important things are invisible to the eyes.  True, that.

The conceit of the book, its miniature planetoids circling in space, and the various representative (crazy) humans who inhabit thereon, is charming. There's a Hillaire Belloc passage I like a great deal,and have quoted before [it starts 'The Inn Of The Margeride' (from Hills and the Sea, 1906)], about the appeal of miniaturisation:
Whatever, keeping its proportion and form, is designed upon a scale much greater or much less than that of our general experience, produces upon the mind an effect of phantasy.

A little perfect model of an engine or a ship does not only amuse or surprise; it rather casts over the imagination something of that veil through which the world is transfigured, and which I have called "the wing of Dalua"; the medium of appreciations beyond experience; the medium of vision, of original passion and of dreams. The principal spell of childhood returns as we bend over the astonishing details. We are giants--or there is no secure standard left in our intelligence.

So it is with the common thing built much larger than the million examples upon which we had based our petty security. It has been always in the nature of worship that heroes, or the gods made manifest, should be men, but larger than men. Not tall men or men grander, but men transcendent: men only in their form; in their dimension so much superior as to be lifted out of our world. An arch as old as Rome but not yet ruined, found on the sands of Africa, arrests the traveller in this fashion. In his modern cities he has seen greater things; but here in Africa, where men build so squat and punily, cowering under the heat upon the parched ground, so noble and so considerable a span, carved as men can carve under sober and temperate skies, catches the mind and clothes it with a sense of the strange. And of these emotions the strongest, perhaps, is that which most of those who travel to-day go seeking; the enchantment of mountains; the air by which we know them for something utterly different from high hills. Accustomed to the contour of downs and tors, or to the valleys and long slopes that introduce a range, we come to some wider horizon and see, far off, a further line of hills. To hills all the mind is attuned: a moderate ecstasy. The clouds are above the hills, lying level in the empty sky; men and their ploughs have visited, it seems, all the land about us; till, suddenly, faint but hard, a cloud less varied, a greyer portion of the infinite sky itself, is seen to be permanent above the world. Then all our grasp of the wide view breaks down. We change. The valleys and the tiny towns, the unseen mites of men, the gleams or thread of roads, are prostrate, covering a little watching space before the shrine of this dominant and towering presence.

It is as though humanity were permitted to break through the vulgar illusion of daily sense, and to learn in a physical experience how unreal are all the absolute standards by which we build. It is as though the vast and the unexpected had a purpose, and that purpose were the showing to mankind in rare glimpses what places are designed for the soul--those ultimate places where things common become shadows and fail, and the divine part in us, which adores and desires, breathes its own air, and is at last alive.
I said at the beginning of this post that I wanted to make two points about the book. The first is made, and it is less a critical point than a simple assertion of the charm of the book, although we might dilate for a moment upon the particular kind of charm. It would be wrong, I think, to talk about the Little Prince himself in terms of 'innocence'.  Despite his bafflement in the face of various grown-up eccentricities and obsessivenesses, the Prince is not innocent in a wide-eyed, or foolish, or unworldly (hah!) way. Indeed, the larger thrust of the book as a whole is surely that it is adults who are the innocents -- for the true vibrancy of things goes over their (our) heads; and they (we) simply don't know, or simply don't see, how the heart's-blood flows. Besides, the Prince patently isn't 'innocent'. He knows more about death, which he actively welcomes, than most. It is not that the little prince is innocent; it is that he is holy. I can't think of another character in literature of whom that is so marvellously true.

So what is my second point? Well, it has to do with the character's title. Why 'prince'? Now, it is true that -- for a country whose modern identity was established by a revolution that supposedly did away with all that aristocratic-monarchist gobbledegook -- France is unusually fascinated with ranks, titles and princeishnesses. Saint-Exupéry, himself a Count, knew a good deal about this airless status-discourse; but the mouthfeel of his book is so removed from the absurdity of all that (and indeed, in several of the adult characters, the book actively satirises all that) that it puzzles me his protagonist has the distinguished title of 'prince' at all. Perhaps he is 'prince' in the sense that, as his world's only inhabit, he is necessarily its ruler. But 'prince' makes me wonder whether there isn't some easy-for-an-Anglo-to-miss allusion to the last 'prince' to rule France, Prince Louis Napoleon, otherwise known as Napoleon III. Two thirds of a century separate Napoleon III's downfall from Saint-Exupéry's writing; but as his country's last absolute ruler (he was known as the 'Prince-President', and initially swept to power on the back of an 1848 plebsicite; but he seized absolute power in a coup-d-etat in 1851 and ruled as a dictator until the Prussians invaded in 1870 and chased him out) he was still a name to conjure with. More, he was known to satirists precisely as a little prince, a pygmy version of his much more famous uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte: Victor Hugo's savage 1852 book Napoléon le Petit was banned in France until the Prince-President's regime came to an end (you can read it here). This is Saint-Exupéry's 'best portrait' of his little prince:

Elsewhere in the book he is dressed more casually; but this first image is (it seems to me) a deliberate confection of the two most celebrated official portraits of Napoleon III: taking the cloak and boots from one, the colours and trappings from the other.

Beyond that (and assuming you swallow the parallel) it's hard to see the function of the parallel, unless it is there precisely to operate by a sort of photographic negative mode. Louis Napoleon, the 'little' Prince-President: calculating and cynical, addicted to pomp and pleasure, inward-looking and decadent, elderly and infirm. The Saintly Exupéry's little prince: young, holy, charming, widely-travelled, loving and loved, self-effacing and wise.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 3: J R R Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)

In lieu of a separate post, and for fear simply of repeating myself: here are things I've already written about Tolkien in another place:

Fellowship of the Ring I.

Fellowship of the Ring II.

The Two Towers I.

The Two Towers II.

Return of the King I.

Return of the King II.

Master-slave dialectic in Tolkien.

Pauline Baynes cover.

A placeholder, yes. Sorry about that; but -- you know. Christmas and whatnot. Still, there are real, actual posts about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Dickens just around the corner.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 4: J R R Tolkien, The Hobbit (1937)


We're into the closing straight: the top 4 best-selling books of all time. And I had better disclose, fully: three of these four are texts I have no critical distance upon at all. They're books I have loved from a young age, and love still.  That fact interpenetrates anything I might write about them, and therefore erodes the necessary critical distance. Ah well: can't be helped.

Chief among them is The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, which I read and heard (in 1974 my parents gave me a cassette-tape talking-book version, narrated by the never-knowingly-underacted Nicol Williamson, to which I listened obsessively over and over) and adored as a child.  What to say about a text to which I'm so close?

Well, one thing I can say is that Tolkien wrote two versions of the story of The Hobbit.  In the first, a troop of dwarves, to use what Tolkien insisted was the proper plural form of the word, are planning to trek to a distant mountain in order to steal a great pile of treasure guarded by a lethal, fire-breathing dragon -- or more properly, to steal it back, since they claim it belongs to them.  They are looking for a professional thief to help them in this dangerous business.  The wizard Gandalf, for reasons that appear largely capricious, tricks the dwarves into hiring Bilbo Baggins, an ordinary, sedentary, unadventurous hobbit; and likewise tricks Bilbo into going along.  This situation is played broadly for laughs, because Bilbo is so patently unfitted to the business of adventuring.  'Unfitness' also seems to characterise the dwarves, mind you: the party stumbles from disaster to disaster as they journey, escaping death by hairs' breadths half a dozen times at the hands of trolls, goblins, wolves, spiders and hostile elves. They are saved from their early misadventures by Gandalf's interventions, for though eccentric he is considerably more competent than they.  Later, though, Gandalf goes off on his own business, and the party has to rescue itself.  As they continue to stumble into a series of potentially fatal pickles, they somehow manage, by a combination of luck and hobbit-judgment, always to get away.  Indeed, following Bilbo's development from massively incompetent to marginally incompetent is one of the pleasures of the narrative. At one point in the story, as the group passes through subterranean tunnels and caves underneath a mountain range, Bilbo gets separated from the others, meets a fellow called Gollum. The two play a gambling game, guessing one another's riddles, and when Bilbo wins Gollum hands what he had wagered -- a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible.

Ownership of this ring, and a very shallow learning curve, gradually make Bilbo better at thieving and sneaking about.  When, against the odds, the party reaches the dragon's Mountain, the quest is achieved, much much more by luck than judgement.  Bilbo does use the magic ring to creep into the dragon's lair and to steal one cup from the great hillocks of piled pelf; but that's as much as he can do. Luckily for all of them, the loss of this single piece happens to enrage the dragon, causing him to leaves the mountain with the furious intention of burning up the local town of men. One of the defenders there, warned by a talking bird, shoots a lucky arrow that kills him.  After this there is a big battle: armies converging on the mountain and its now undragoned hoard.  The leader of the dwarf-band is killed, but otherwise things work out well for everybody.  Finally, having spent almost all the novel adumbrating the 'there' of the novel's subtitle, the story sprints through the 'and back again', hurrying the materially enriched Bilbo home in a few pages.

I stress the 'incompetence' angle in my retelling here because, really, that's what characterises the main players. It's an endearing incompetence, used partly for comedy; partly for dramatic purposes (by way of ratcheting up the narrative tension and keeping things interesting) and partly to facilitate the readers'ourengagement. Because we can be honest; we'd be rubbish on a dangerous quest. We're hobbitish types ourselves, and our idea of fun is snuggling into the sofa with a cup of cocoa and a good book, not fighting gigantic spiders with a sword. Or more precisely, we enjoy fighting giant spiders with a sword in our imaginations only.  The book has sold as many copies as it has in part because the Hobbits are able (textually-speaking) so brilliantly to mediate our modern, cosseted perspectives and the rather forbidding antique warrior code and the pitiless Northern-European Folk Tale world.

That there is something haphazard about the larger conception of this adventure is part of its point: obviously, it makes for a jollier tale if an clearly unsuitable comic-foil is sent on a dangerous quest than some super-competent swordsman alpha-male. The bumbling, homely qualities of Bilbo, and the pinball-ball bouncing trajectory from frying pan to fire to bigger fire of the narrative, are loveable aspects of the whole. And that's right: the motor of the story is the idea that adventure will come and find you, and winkle you out of your comfortable hidey-hole. It's a beguiling idea, in part because it literalises the action of story itself. We settle ourselves to read, in physical comfort; but the story itself transports us imaginatively out of our hole and away, upon all manner of precarious, exciting, absorbing and diverting journeys.

This is The Hobbit that appeared in 1937, to both acclaim and commercial success. But there's another The Hobbit.  I don't mean the upcoming film.  I mean a second The Hobbit written by Tolkien, comprising revisions to this first edition, additional material written for the Lord of the Rings and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, plus other material -- most importantly two separate prose pieces, both called 'The Quest for Erebor' that were collected in the posthumously-published Unfinished Tales (1980).  JRRT's first revisions were confined to the 'Riddles in the Dark' chapter: for after writing he first Hobbit Tolkien came to the conclusion that 'the Ring' was more than just a magic ring, more even than a ring of Gyges: that it was indeed the most powerful artefact in the whole world, one with which people became so besotted they lose their souls.  Gollum, he reasoned, would not freely give up such an item.  So he rewrote the scene. But this is symptomatic of something larger -- a reconceptualising (Tolkien purists might say: a distillation or focussing) of the now-celebrated JRRT-legendarium: no longer a folk-story, now a grand sacramental drama of incarnation, atonement and redemption.  I can't say I'm particularly fond of Tolkien's coinage 'legendarium', by the way, which to me sounds like a Bluewater store selling lead Warhammer miniatures.  Not, I might add, that there's anything wrong with Warhammer miniatures. My point is this: Tolkien's celebrated 1939 essay 'On Fairy Stories' actually celebrates two modes of Fantasy, homely and transcendental. Traditional fairy tales, which Tolkien sees as beautiful and profound narratives of escape and resacralisation; and the New Testament, which he thinks shares those qualities with fairy stories but which he also thinks exists on a higher, truer and more important plane.  This is how he puts it: 'the Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the "happy ending." The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.'

My beef, if I may slip into a nonvegetarian idiom for a moment, is not with Tolkien's religious beliefs, which (although I do not share them) are clearly essential to the dynamic of his art. My beef is with the notion that all our bents and faculties have a purpose. In Tolkien's second version of The Hobbit, it is precisely the haphazardness, the intimations of glorious, human, comic incompetence, that must be sanded, smoothed and filed away. It is no longer enough for Gandalf to turn up on the doorstop of the world's least likely adventurer merely because that is the sort of thing batty old wizards do. Now he must do so because he has a larger plan.  In the first version of the story it doesn't really matter why Gandalf chooses a hobbit, of all people; or more precisely, his whylessness of choice is actually the point of the story. ('I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging,' Gandalf says, with what sounds to me rather like desperation, 'and it's very difficult to find anyone.') This is because the novel is not about Gandalf's whys, it is about Bilbo's adventure: why he is chosen matters less than the way he acquits himself on his journey, and the extent to which he sheds his unheroism and becomes a better fellow. That's what matters because we are he. That's how the reading experience goes.

But in Tolkien's second version of the hobbit everything has to happen for a reason. Gandalf was not idly arranging an adventure; he was setting in motion one crucial play in a larger strategy of a grand war against Evil.
I knew that Sauron had arisen again and would soon declare himself, and I knew that he was preparing for a great war. ... The state of things in the North was very bad. The Kingdom under the Mountain and the strong Men of Dale were no more. To resist any force Sauron might send to regain the northern passes in the mountain and the old lands of Angmar there were only the Dwarves of the Iron Hills, and behind them lay a desolation and a Dragon. The Dragon Sauron might use with terrible effect. Often I said to myself: "I must find some means of dealing with Smaug." [Unfinished Tales, 322]
Just to be clear; I have no problem with retconning; not in the least (for I take 'text' to be fundamentally fluid and adaptable). I can go further, and say that one of the things that gives Tolkien's art depth and resonance is precisely the way he layers medium and deep historical pasts into his present-set tale; and having this secondary perspective on the material of The Hobbit adds echoey, plangent splendour to the whole. But that's not to say that this piece of retconning makes sense. On the contrary: it compels us to believe that Gandalf, deciding that it was a strategic priority that Smaug be eliminated, thinks not of sending an army, and certainly not of going himself and tackling the dragon with his, you know, magic and that. Rather he thinks: "I'll go to the extreme other end of the continent, recruit a number of dwarves, some of them manifestly not up to the task (Bombur?), plus a hobbit without any experience or aptitude for a mission of this sort whatsoever, and send them off travelling halfway across the world past unnumbered perils in the hope that somehow they'll do the old worm in."  Why the dwarves? Well, I suppose they can at least be persuaded to go, since they regard Erebor as rightfully theirs; although you have to wonder whether a military strategist who wasn't actually senile mightn't think first of approaching the men of Dale. But there is no reason in this scenario why Bilbo would be anyone's first, or thousand-and-first choice. In his second version of the story, Tolkien comes up with three reasons why it's a good idea to wager the entire success of the operation of Bilbo -- a figure of whom Thorin rightly says 'he is soft, soft as the mud of the Shire, and silly,' a judgement with which Gandalf concurs ('"You are quite right", I said' [Unfinished Tales, 325]). Those three reasons are:
1. That Hobbits don't wear shoes, where Dwarfs do ('suddenly in my mind [I pictured] the sturdy, heavy-booted Dwarves ... the quick, soft-footed hobbit'), a consideration, certainly, since Dragons have good hearing; although you might think that advising the Dwarves to take off their boots might be less precarious than hanging the success of the enterprise around the neck of a sort of Middle-Earth fur-footed Homer Simpson.

2. That Smaug would not know Bilbo's scent, where he would recognise the smell of Dwarves, although apparently Tolkien added this as an afterthought to his MS ('a scent that cannot be placed, at least not by Smaug, the enemy of Dwarves'). A scent that cannot be smelt at all by Smaug would make more sense, but OK. The fact that he smells a thief in his lair but can't immediately place the thief's provenance might confuse him for ... six seconds or so. The third reason is the most arbitrary of all --

3. Gandalf just feels in his water that it would be a good idea: 'listen to me Thorin Oakenshield ... if this hobbit goes with you, you will succeed. If not you will fail. A foresight is on me' [325]. Hard not to see this as code for 'I've already written this story and know how it turns out', which comes dangerously close to a cheat.
The story of The Lord of the Rings is that even 'the little people' (that's us, of course) have their part to play in the great historical and martial dramas of the age -- and it is a potent and truthful story, well told. But The Hobbit is that story only in its second iteration. In its first, the one we are chiefly considering here, The Hobbit is not about the great dramas of the age; it is about us-sized dramas of people being taken out of their comfort zone -- whisked away by Story.

I'm happy that there are two versions of The Hobbit, and feel no desire to try and force them into some notional procrustean 'coherence'. Only narrative fundamentalists, the textual Taliban, believe that all stories must be brought into that sort of rigid alignment. But of the two stories, really I prefer the one (homely, funny, a little bit slapstick and a little bit wondrous) over the other (grand-verging-on-grandiose, theological, epic and strenuously, to coin a phrase, eutragic). Although I do love them both. And I love the Dwarves vastly more than any number of elves. I love precisely their lack of graceful elegance. Thorin Oakenshield has some noble speeches in The Hobbit it's true; but his Dwarves are better at stuffing themselves with food and drink, and getting (with endearing incompetence) into ridiculous scrapes. Consulting the Dwarf family tree, in the appendices to Return of the King, I discover that amongst Thorin relatives are "Borin" and "Groin". A little more groin would have done The Lord of the Rings no harm at all, I think. Not borin' in the least.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 5: 红楼梦 (1759-1791)



Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 6: Agatha Christie, Ten Little Niggers (1939)

To save myself a lot of tedious precis work, here's a quick wikisummary: 'Eight people, Lawrence Wargrave, Vera Claythorne, Philip Lombard, General Macarthur, Emily Brent, Anthony "Tony" Marston, Doctor Armstrong, and William Blore have been invited to a mansion on the fictional Soldier Island ("Nigger Island" in the original 1939 UK publication, "Indian Island" in the 1964 US publication), which is based upon Burgh Island off the coast of Devon. Upon arriving, they are told that their hosts, a Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen (Ulick Norman Owen and Una Nancy Owen), are currently away, but the guests will be attended to by Thomas and Ethel Rogers. Each guest finds in his or her room an odd bit of bric-a-brac and a framed copy of the nursery rhyme "Ten Little Soldiers" ("Niggers" or "Indians" in respective earlier editions) hanging on the wall ... During their meal, a gramophone record plays, accusing each of the ten of murder. Each guest acknowledges awareness of (and in some cases involvement with) the deaths of the persons named (except Emily Brent, who tells only Vera, who later tells the other guests), but denies any malice and/or legal culpability. (except for Lombard and Blore, the latter telling only the former.) The guests now realize they have been tricked into coming to the island, but find that they cannot leave: the boat which regularly delivers supplies has stopped arriving. They are murdered one by one, each death paralleling a verse of the nursery rhyme, with one of the figurines being removed after each murder. First to die is the spoiled Anthony Marston, who chokes to death when his drink is poisoned with cyanide ("one choked his little self"). That night, Thomas Rogers notices that a figurine is missing from the dining table. Mrs. Rogers dies in her sleep that night, which Dr. Armstrong attributes to a fatal overdose of sleeping draught ("one overslept himself"). General Macarthur fatalistically predicts that no one will leave the island alive, and at lunch, is indeed found dead from a blow to the back of his skull ("one said he'd stay there"). Meanwhile, two more figurines have disappeared from the dining room. In growing panic, the survivors search the island in vain for the murderer. Justice Wargrave establishes himself as the decisive leader of the group and asserts one of them must be the murderer playing a sadistic game with the rest. The killer's twisted humour is evidenced by the names of their "hosts": "U.N. Owen" is a pun and a homophone for "unknown". The next morning, Rogers is missing, as is another figurine. He is found dead in the woodshed, struck in the back of the head with an axe ("one chopped himself in halves"). Later that day, Emily Brent is killed in the dining room by an injection of potassium cyanide that leaves a mark on her neck ("A bumblebee stung one"), which at first appears to be a sting from a bumble bee placed in the room. The hypodermic needle is found outside her window next to a smashed china figurine. The five survivors — Dr. Armstrong, Justice Wargrave, Philip Lombard, Vera Claythorne, and William Blore — become increasingly frightened and almost frantic.'
First of all, I must apologise for the use of the n-word, in this post title and elsewhere within the actual post. I appreciate it is an offensive term, nowadays.  More, and just to be clear, it was offensive then: Dodd, Mead and Company published the book in November 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, but reissued it only two months later as And Then There Were None because of the original's racist tone. It has been published and adapted as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldier Boys, and naturally the option is available to me to discuss the text under one or other of these euphemistic names. But the offensiveness of using the original title needs to be balanced against the greater need not to airbrush away the immanent low-level racism of the culture out of which these novels were created. To render the racism of the past invisible is to empower the racism of today by innoculating it against history.

Black characters crop up rarely in Christie (there are none in Ten Little Niggers, for instance, despite its title). But 'foreigners' are one of the key types of otherness by which her cosy-catastrophic narrative twostep of death (Order Lost) and detection (New Order Regained) is orchestrated. The other type, perhaps surprisingly, is 'middle aged men of the professional classes'. I can't remember where I first read about Christie's dislike of doctors, the textual consequence of which is that if you are reading a Christie whodunnit and one of the characters is a doctor (especially a surgeon or consultant) nine times out of ten he (of course the doctor will be a he) is the murderer. Other 'professionals', especially lawyers and judges, are also broadly distrusted by Christie. Nor do these two stereotypes fit together into an uncommon combination of dislike: the trope of distrusting, disliking and, of course, actively blaming the racial 'other' who has lots of money because he is unlike oneself and has lots of money gears only too easily up to some of the worst inhumanity of the twentieth century. The ten characters in Ten Little Niggers are all invited or induced to Nigger Island by the murderer, who cloaks him/herself under the ignotus-y pseudonym 'U.N.Owen' ('or by a slight stretch of fancy -- UNKNOWN! [72]'). The flash young Captain Lombard, for instance, is offered quite a lot of money, but although he goes he has his suspicions:
What exactly was up, he wondered? That little Jew had been damned mysterious ... A hundred guineas when he was literally down to his last square meal! He had fancied, though, that the little Jew had not been deceived -- that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn't deceive them about money -- they knew! [16]
1939, ladies and gentlemen.

This is glancing enough, but not untypical. Elsewhere in pre-War Christie, Jews are vermin (‘he was king of the rats … his face gleamed white and sharp in the moonlight. There was the least hint of a curve to the thin nose. His father had been a Polish Jew’ The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928) or repulsive toad-like moneylenders—as in The Secret of Chimneys (1925) whose villain Isaacstein has ‘a fat yellow face and black eyes as impenetrable as those of a cobra’ as well as a ‘generous curve to [his] big nose’. He represents ‘Hebraic people. Yellow-faced financiers’ and is dismissively referred to as ‘Ikey Hermanstein’, ‘Nosystein’ and ‘Fat Ikey’ by the novel’s gentile dramatis personae. T S Eliot and Wagner make references of this stripe in their art, and critics fulminate or wring their hands. Christie does it and people nod indulgently, mumble that she is 'of her time' and pass over it in silence.  Or they actively scrub it out of the books, via surruptitious Bowdlerisation and re-naming. This might be because people think they take Christie's art 'less seriously' than Eliot or Wagner; but I don't think her work is less serious. It's less complex, and less resonant, but its main theme -- death -- is exactly as serious, and she has enjoyed far greater cultural penetration and reach than either of the other two.

This, I think, is part of what is interesting about 'the whodunnit' as a form, a distinctively twentieth-century mode of art and indeed one of only a handful of modes invented by that troubled century (along with cinema, TV and pop music). Puzzle-mystery stories had been popular in the nineteenth-century, of course, but the emphasis there had been on the puzzle; it is a striking thing to read the complete run of Sherlock Holmes stories and appreciate how rarely Conan Doyle presented his detective with a dead body -- much more often the mystery will something stolen, somebody blackmailed or kidnapped, or a painted canine. But the default premise of the classic 20th-century crime novel is death, one or many; and that shift of emphasis is interesting.

One of the things that is new about the C20th-century whodunnit is precisely the way it handles death. Previously (excuse me if I talk a little over-generally) art encountered death as tragedy, either for the individual or (in Wagner) for the world, something to be apprehended with sorrow or defiance; or else art represented death as a portal, a transcendental supercession of mortality into (usually) a glorious spiritual state. These are both meaningful ways of relating to mortality, of course; but the Golden Age whodunit proposes a different one: it says not just that death is a puzzle -- which is fair enough, I suppose -- but that death is a soluble puzzle. That latter part is the radical bit, I think.

Martin Heidegger talks about humans embodying a 'being-towards-death', a dimension of our Dasein that, uniquely for us, can project itself forward against its own finitude. Now, Heidegger was for a time a member of the Nazi party, so we can intuit his attitude towards racial otherness.  But putting that on one side for a moment.  He elaborates 'being-towards-death' in his big book, Sein und Zeit, ('Being and Time' 1927) a text I'm tempted to characterise as 'boring-towards-death'. To cut a long boring short, here's Simon Critchley's deft summary:
There are four rather formal criteria in Heidegger's conception of being-towards-death: it is non-relational, certain, indefinite and not to be outstripped. Firstly, death is non-relational in the sense in standing before death one has cut off all relations to others. Death cannot be experienced through the deaths of others, but only through my relation to my death ... Secondly, it is certain that we are going to die. Although one might evade or run away from the fact, no one doubts that life comes to an end in death. Thirdly, death is indefinite in the sense that although death is certain, we do not know when it going to happen ... Fourthly, to say that death is not to be outstripped (unüberholbar) simply means that death is pretty damned important. There's no way of trumping it and it outstrips all the possibilities that my power of free projection possesses.
The puzzle-whodunit dramatises the first three of these modes of being-towards-death, fairly straightforwardly, but where it gets interesting is the fourth. I suppose that on one level, even (perhaps) a banal level, it is central to the form that the veil of mystery is always stripped away by these books' conclusions. You may object that this only happens in a trivial sense, but I'd suggest both that the structure of these sorts of novels constellates a plotted trivium against a metaphorical profundity. More, I'd go further and suggest that, regardless of what a large number of 'serious' novelists suggest, this is the right way round, actually.

I'll dilate upon this point for a moment, before coming back to Christie's novel. Crime stories still have huge reader appeal, but the puzzle-whodunit has (broadly) gone out of fashion. Instead we have a great many novels that attempt to put the profundity up front. There is now a different sort of generalised anxiety about the ‘death’ around which the genre is structured, a desire to ‘take it seriously’, in contemporary crime fiction.  Now personally speaking I’m drawn to the Golden Age whodunits because they often are superbly ingenious, and I prize ingenuity; but I suppose it's that contemporary crime stories have lost interest in ingenuity for its own sake. In such titles as I have read from the franchises of Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen books, or the Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, or from watching The Killing, the mystery itself is rather watery, and the emphasis is shifted over to the creation of atmosphere, location, a particular city (Rome, Glasgow Edinburgh) and a distinctive central character—or in the many historical whodunits, from Lindsay Duncan to Ellis Peters, a kind of historical infodumping. Or to direct our attention in another direction and our eye falls on the vasty stretches of ‘gritty’ crime novels, police procedurals, serial killer yarns, ‘psychological’ tales and so on. Here ingenuity seems simply to be out of place, perhaps because these novels pretend to verisimilitude, and ‘we’ don’t really believe the world to be a place of ingenious schemes and plots. Murder, the consensus today, is brutal and, in an existential sense, simple.  But it seems to me that, in fact, that death is not existentially simple. On the contrary, it is prodigiously puzzling, a mystery hidden in plain view—we all know we will die, after all, although that knowledge is not a simple thing. And furthermore it strikes me that there are things a notionally trivial mode of art, like the whodunit, can say about this puzzle—about its opacity, or more particularly about the disconnect between surface glamour and the resistance-to-interpretation of the depths—that more notionally ‘complex’ forms cannot.

One way of responding to Ten Little Niggers is to test it for plausibility and coherence. But this is not the best way, because of course the plot is implausible and incoherent; it makes no more pretence as far as this is concerned than do Samuel Beckett's plays. It's not likely all ten of the suspects would accept the invitation to the island, or that they would play along; it's not likely that the whole filigree elaborate scheme of 'the murderer' would run along its grooves as smoothly as the book has it doing. That the victims wouldn't simply swim away (the weather isn't always bad, and the mainland is clearly visible from the island), or build a boat.  That they wouldn't all just lock themselves in their rooms until rescue came.  But to think like this is to miss the point.  The artifice of the scheme, worked through in the narrative, is a feature, not a bug. Arguably it is a key feature. From a metaphorical point of view, whodunits like these are in effect saying: death is complex, ingenious, unexpected and artificial. And although perhaps it sounds counterintuitive, I wonder if this doesn’t actually encode a greater existential veracity than the ‘realist’ mode. Think of your own mortality. Of course in one sense it is the very opposite of ‘an unexpected thing’; we all know we must die. But in another sense it is necessarily radically unexpected: we can never anticipate it, because we shall not live through it. It is something incommensurate with our living being-in-the-world. Its complexity derives, I think, from this.

But there is also this question of the solubility of mortality. It is something, in a deep sense, insoluble; and perhaps the logic of the ingeniously difficult mystery is a better way of apprehending that than notions that death is, in any sense, straightforward. Or to be a little more specific: obviously these sorts of books do offer a ‘solution’; but unlike the death of Othello, or of Prince André in War and Peace these ‘solutions’ are radically unsatisfying. They address the epiphenomena of the victim’s death without touching in any sense upon the deeper questions—and this, I’m arguing, is more existentially honest than the conventional tragic mode. The artificiality of the Golden Age whodunit set-up refracts Heidegger's perspective: any notional ‘realism’ about death must be existentially mendacious, because death is not ‘real’ in the sense that the events of my life are real (having breakfast, dropping the kids at school, going to work and so on). Death is not a part of life, not lived-through, only ever lived-towards. It is an artifice, not in the sense that it has an artificer; or more precisely only in the sense that its artificer is us ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves. And Ten Little Niggers makes great play with its egregious artificiality. A character notes that ‘it’s only in books people carry revolvers around as a matter of course’ [146] precisely to set-up the discovery that one character is carrying around a revolver around as a matter of course. To quote General Macarthur: “the whole thing is preposterous—preposterous!”’ [64]. Of course it is, and designedly so.

This is not to absolve Ten Little Niggers of its horrible title, or Christie's work generally of its ubiquitous though low-level racism.  On the contrary; it is to highlight the way that this novel -- not to labour the point, but a book published in 1939 -- is precisely about an ingenious though sadistic plot to isolate a number of clever, mostly affluent but fundamentally wicked people on an island, and dispose of them.  The late 30s and early 40s had no shortage of crazy schemes to solve the (please note my inverted commas) 'Jewish problem' by bunging them all on an island somewhere. Paul De Man wrote an essay on "The Jews in Contemporary Literature" (published, notoriously, in Le Soir early in 1941) in which Jews are described as possessing precisely the calculating, remorseless qualities of the murderer in Christie's novel ('Their cerebralness, their capacity to assimilate doctrines while maintaining a cold detachment from them ...').  De Man actively advocates isolating them all on an island: 'one can thus see that solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth.'

The 'solution' to Ten Little Niggers is a final one. In that respect the euphemistic re-titling is correct, 'and then there were none'. Film versions of the book fudge this issue, leaving a couple of survivors. Christie is more ruthless -- all die. All must die. We could put it, appropriating a contemporary's words, that her position is that reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking 'bad people' undesirable. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.

More particularly, in Ten Little Niggers, as in some other of her titles, Christie knowingly pushes the 'puzzle whodunit' form to an extreme. Usually, of course, a whodunit will entail one murder, a gaggle of suspects -- a dozen, say -- one of whom is shown to be guilty. But in Christie's most remarkable books everyone is guilty (Orient Express, Ten Little Niggers), or the Law itself is guilty, both in the sense that the representative of the law is the murderer (Ten Little Niggers, Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Mousetrap, Curtain) and in the broader sense that justice is the same indiscriminate, mortal process as murder. Her more conventional whodunits pale into feebleness beside this splendidly, Lutheran conceit -- that we are all guilty, that the law exists to punish us all.

Regular whodunits are stagey, right down to the assemble-in-the-library-please denouement. But Ten Little Niggers takes this aspect to stagier-than-thou lengths. The murderer addresses the assembled group via a pre-recorded gramophone record; but this is described in the novel in terms of a capitalised Voice (‘into that silence came The Voice. Without warning, inhuman, penetrating ...’ 56). The starkly typified characters—retired Judge, religious spinster, flash young man and so on—in this bright-lit artificial environment, as the storm rages outside, Lear-like (or Peter-Brook-Staging-King-Lear-like): there is a sense of unaccommodated man facing down his mortality, although when Christie reaches (uncharacteristically) for the Vatic it doesn’t really convince (all the following ellipses are hers: ‘Aeons passed ... worlds spun and whirled ... Time was motionless ... It stood still: it passed through a thousand ages ...’ [277])

The last two left alive are Vera and Philip Lombard. Vera has the gun, and Philip jumps her for it. ‘He sprang. Quick as a panther—as any other feline creature ... Automatically Vera pressed the trigger ... Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring, then crashed heavily to the ground’ [281]. In another setting, the Wile E. Coyote touch of ‘Lombard’s body stayed poised in mid-spring’ would be simply risible. Here, in this pared-down Beckettian landscape, it feels oddly right.

What does all this have to do with the question of racism, with which this post opened? The obvious answer to this is that Christie's novels, as unusually pure examples of the puzzle-whodunit form, necessarily trade in stereotypical characters; and that therefore the Weltanschauung they construct must be stereotypical too.  This is because a puzzle whodunit needs to put its pieces in play, for the reader to solve the puzzle; and that a too rich or detailed individuation of those pieces would interfere with the crispness of the larger pattern. Reading Christie's whodunits puts me in mind of what Nabokov said in Speak, Memory about his favourite hobby, constructing chess problems:
It is a beautiful, complex and sterile art related to the ordinary form of the game only insofar as, say, the properties of a sphere are made use of both by a juggler in weaving a new act and by a tennis player in winning a tournament. Most chess players, in fact, amateurs and masters alike, are only mildly interested in these highly specialized, fanciful, stylish riddles, and though appreciative of a catchy problem would be utterly baffled if asked to compose one.
Mutatis mutandi, as the mutant Latin goes, this applies wonderfully to the relationship between Christie's puzzles and actual crime; the relationship between Christie's 'death' and actual death. There is a sterility to what she does, it is true; but an invigorating rather than enervating one.

I'm tempting to suggest that the real theme of Ten Little Niggers is not death, so much as the way we are trapped by death, the way it permits us no get-out. Like the monolithic, mind-straitjacket called racism, death closes down our possibilities, and fills us with fear and irrational suspicion. Plus, it has to be said, a weird, gallows hilarity. In the novel, all the occupants of the island have a mortal sin on their conscience. In the case of Philip Lombard, this is that when an army once officer he abandoned a company of native soldiers, making off with their supplies and so ensuring their death. Vera Claythorne and Emily Brent discuss his case. ‘He admits to having abandoned twenty men to their deaths,’ notes the latter. ‘They were only natives!’ retorts Vera. Emily’s response to this (that ‘black or white, they were our brothers’) provokes laughter in Vera: ‘our black brothers—our black brothers! Oh, I’m going to laugh. I’m hysterical. I’m not myself ...’ [122] What is it that Christie finds funny here, I wonder: that 'we' might consider black people 'brothers'? The grounds of the comparison are the gravest, and the most profound: that black people, Jews and white people all share the predicament that they are thinking, feeling beings who will die. This grim brother- and sisterhood unites us all, after all; and it is this, most fundamentally, that makes a mockery of racism.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Bestselling Books, 7: C S Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)

Still running up this hill: and we've reached number 7, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: 85 million copies sold.

This is the best-made and most compelling of the Narnia books: four English schoolchildren, evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, find a magical wardrobe. Passing through it they move (in a splendidly realised, dream-like pun) from fur coats to fir trees: they have passed into the Fantasy realm of Narnia where all the animals can talk. Here they find themselves in the battle between the White Witch -- whose malign magic is keeping the world always winter -- and Aslan, a magical talking-and-flying lion. Edmund, one of the four kids, seduced by the White Witch, betrays his brother and sisters for some Turkish Delight.  To redeem him Aslan delivers himself willingly into her clutches. She kills him, but he comes back to life, and in a big conclusive battle the wintry evil is defeated and the White Witch killed. It's a book with genuine charm (impossible to fake, that); inventive, witty, well-plotted and immersive.

Now, alright. Let's talk turkey, and by turkey I mean: Christ and his wattle. I have seen this novel described as an allegory of Christ’s passion, but it’s not—this may seem like an unimportant quibble, but I'm going to insist upon it. Tolkien, Lewis’s friend, always expressed his ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory; and although Lewis was fonder of the mode, he isn’t writing it here. What The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does is explore the logic of incarnation, something of central importance to Christians. Aslan doesn’t allegorically represent or symbolise Christ; he is the form Christ’s incarnation would take in a reality populated by talking animals. Similarly, Christ in this world (I mean our world, the one we're in now) was not a ‘symbol’ for God; he was actually God, incarnated in human form.

Nevertheless, though not allegorical, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe clearly adumbrates a Christian story, and does so because Lewis considered that story true. Some find the way this religious proselytising is handled in the novel to be sneaky; and I know people who talk about how disappointed they were when they grew old enough to spot, or had people point out to them, the Christian burden. I don’t see that myself.

It is striking, mind you, how bourgeois the fantasy is—the extent to which, indeed, the fantasy is precisely of bourgeois life. A faun with an umbrella and a pile of department-store goods under his arm, good food (easy to overlook how intense the craving for good food was in Britain in the immediate aftermath amongst WWII), fine clothes, pets—all of which presumably means there are department stores in Narnia; and that tea—which Mr Tumnus has—is imported from somewhere.  (Incidentally: Tumnus knows what tea and cakes are, wears a scarf and owns an umbrella; but he has no idea what a ‘spare room’ is? Pull the other one). Above all, this book prizes the sanctity of the family unit. The family unit in this novel is so important it even takes precedence over the life of God; for Edmund’s venal failings must be bought-back by Aslan’s death. The pets thing is crucial too; Lewis was, from an early age, fascinated and charmed by the notion of talking animals, and he wrote his fantasy in part to give himself an imaginative platform for the elaboration of this dream. But the talking animals of Lewis’s world are much more house-pet-like than they are (say) the numinous god-like talking animals of Norse or Egyptian religion, or the uncanny unsettling talking animals of folklore. To grow up with a loved pet is, surely, to enter, half knowingly, into the belief that your cat or dog or hamster is, in some sense, a person; that you talk to them and they look just like they can understand you. This is the mode of anthropomorphisation that informs Lewis’s vision. Even Aslan is, in effect, a housecat on a large scale: the book’s repeated stress on his ‘wildness’ notwithstanding. I could add that I’m not necessarily deprecating the book when I say this—religious observation may be no less heartfelt because it happens within a comfortable middle-class milieu, and the love people (and especially children) feel for their pets can be as genuine and as intense, or intenser, as that they feel for other people. It would be clumsy and insulting to sneer at this: love, after all, is love.

Nonetheless, I’ve always felt it is the metamorphosis of Lewis’s re-imagining of the Christian story that is the most interesting part of the novel. Gender-bending the traditional maleness of Satan, such that your cosmos’s principle of wickedness becomes a proud but sexually alluring woman is not ideologically neutral, of course; and there is a strain of sexism (in places it touches on active misogyny) running though the Narnia books—most egregiously where poor old Susan gets excluded from heaven at the end of the series because she starts wearing lipstick. A similar pressure of deformation elevates the Lion of Judah, an aspect of Christ only marginally adumbrated in the Bible, to the central expression of the messiah’s nature. The lamb pops up too, from time to time, in the later books; but you can’t help feeling that, subconsciously, Lewis just wants a more carnivorous Jesus than the one supplied by his actual Bible. A Christ with bigger teeth.

This is political too, of course; and for many (genuine, devout) Christians part of the struggle of their faith is precisely to find a way of decanting off all the hippy, Communist, wimpiness with which their saviour is characterised in the NT. There is a certain type of Conservative for whom, the cosier he is at home, the more he feels that Christian values of ‘love’, ‘mercy’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘turning the other cheek’ are best manifested in the world via helicopter gunships, daisycutters and the sanctioned torture of tan-skinned detainees. Lewis isn’t quite in this camp; but it is a striking thing that Aslan in Narnia neither (apparently) requires nor is offered worship by the other creatures. They speak highly of him, follow him as a warlord and leader (although it is the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who, it seems, must actually rule)—but there are no churches or temples to Aslan, and he provokes no soul-shaking terror and wonder in the hearts of his people. It’s tempting to ascribe this to a littleness in the scale of Lewis’s imaginative conception (this is a kid’s book, after all); or to spin it more positively, a sort of modular simplification of the larger questions of belief.

It’s Lewis’s fantasy, and he can do what he likes, of course (I can go further: the fact that so many scores of millions of people have bought his fantasy suggests that he was in tune with very widespread views). But I always used to wonder—what does Aslan eat? In this world the animals are all of them more than sentient: they are intelligent. They have, in a word, souls. Eating beings with souls is called cannibalism. Is that what we’re dealing with here? It moves our thought in a rather startling direction; because, I suppose, the answer to the question what does God eat? is liable to be—us. The good shepherd looks after his flock, of course; but he doesn’t do so just for the sake of it. On the contrary; he does it because the sheep are valuable comestibles. The good shepherd enjoys roast lamb as much as any of us.

You might feel that this is to miss the point of the book, and I might (almost) agree with you—Lewis’s worldbuilding is not predicated upon a logic of internal consistency. To ask ‘what does Aslan eat?’ is no more to unpick the world described in the novel than to wonder, as I do above, how a fundamentally medieval world supports a trade in tea or the manufacture of umbrellas. To be a little more precise: as the series goes on, Lewis becomes patently more concerned with internal consistency: the Narnia of Prince Caspian or The Horse and his Boy is much less interpenetrated by marks of bourgeois prosperity, and The Magician’s Nephew goes so far as to explain away the most egregiously anachronistic feature of Lewis’s medievalised realm, the cast-iron lamp-post. But by doing so the books lose something, too; a sense of the way fantasy exists not as a locus of radical otherness, but on the contrary as a holey-space that precisely intersects our world of middle-class comforts, restrictions and anxieties. Tolkien does something similar in Lord of the Rings, except that he separates out his bourgeois eighteenth-century hobbits geographically from his medieval Gondorians and tenth-century Rohan riders. Lewis, by jumbling it all in together, Cair Paravel next to the department store that Mr Tumnus has just visited, makes a bolder imaginative alloy,

My real criticism of this novel relates to a different matter. It is that it ends just when it is getting interesting. The Pevensie kids become the kings and queens of Narnia: King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just and Queen Lucy the Valiant. They grow to adulthood in this world, until, many years later, they chance upon the lamppost again, and tumble back into our world, no longer adults, now children. Only a few hours have passed on Earth, for all the year (decades?) they spent in Narnia. Then Lewis stops; but this is where the story starts, surely -- what would it be like to have an adult consciousness inside the body of a child? To have passed through puberty, and then suddenly to have the hormone tap switched off? You could hardly go back to you former existence; but neither could you expect to live as an adult. Would you go mad, or use your beyond-your-seeming-years wisdom to some purpose? How would you cope? Would you try to explain? Would you betray yourself, and reveal the Narnia portal to the world -- would governments attempt to exploit it? The psychological interest in the story begins at the end; but that's exactly the place where Lewis drops the bar down and ends things. Grrr!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 8: H Rider Haggard, She (1887)

Brainy but manly English gentleman Horace Holly, his handsome young friend Leo Vincey and various others adventure their way into darkest Africa where they meet the fabled "She-who-must-be-obeyed". And here you have it: after a surprisingly turgid start, with lots of faffing around an ersatz rossetta-stone complete with long stretches of transcribed Greek, Latin and medieval English, this book metamorphoses into a nicely-paced adventure yarn in unexplored Africa, and a titular character who expertly focusses erotic intensity, mystery, and deep history into one doll-shaped fetish. Good stuff, although its ideological limitations (its naked imperialism; its racism and cultural condescension) are harder to forgive than is the case with many other Victorian novels. Still: the eighth bestselling single book of all time? Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman. Surely? Mr Feynman? Excuse me?

Can't hear me.

I could speculate about the book's appeal: its imperial mysticism must have appealed to large number of people in the US and the Commonwealth (really?), for only global success can explain sales like this.  But I suspect that actually the explanation is staring us in the face.  The enormous success of this volume is like that of Nabokov's Lolita (the 14th best-selling book of all time) and Delany's Dhalgren -- two great books, hard, even rebarbative works, that sold as well as they did because people thought they were all about sex. They're not, really; either of them.  But people thought they were.  In an age before the widespread availability of sexually explicit material (and Delany's book is at the latter end of this long-lasting era), even books like these two could ride the wave of popular lubriciousness. And I'd say that's surely what appealed to so many people about She.

At any rate, I think I have plumbed the mystery of this novel, the secret at its heart, and I am willing  to share my discovery with you. The book is about sex, yes.  But we can be more specific. Here, Holly is trying to get to sleep:
Above me shone the eternal stars... Oh that we should shake loose the prisoned pinions of the soul and soar to that superior point, whence, like to some traveller looking out through space from Darien's giddiest peak, we might gaze with the spiritual eyes of noble thoughts deep into Infinity! What would it be to cast off this earthly robe, to have done for ever with these earthly thoughts and miserable desires... Yes, to cast them off, to have done with the foul and thorny places of the world; and like those glittering points above me, to rest on high wrapped forever in the brightness of our better selves, that even now shines in us as fire faintly shines within those lurid balls. [123]
Lurid balls. That is what this book is, fundamentally, about -- the lurid balls and the phallic pillar of fire. These gift Ayesha her power; but also rob her of it, revealing her (at the end) to be not sexually desirable after all and therefore worthless. The lurid balls and the fiery pillar are the arbiters of worth in this text.

Where does the adventure happen? The land of Kôr. What does Kôr mean? According to Patrick Brantlinger, 'Kôr, derives from Norse mythological romance, where the deathbed of the goddess Hel is called Kor and means "disease" in Old Norse.' I think this unlikely, partly since Old Norse has so little to do with this novel, mostly because the novel generates its affect via its weird potency, rather than by any too immersive wallowing in disease and deathbeds. No: I have another theory about the meaning of the word 'Kôr'. I proceed from the observation that Haggard goes to great length to establish the Hellenistic provenance both of Ayesha and the novel itself -- the latter by inserting great slabs of Greek actually into the text:

Ayesha, on seeing Holly for the first time, 'mounted the daïs and sat down upon the chair, and spoke to me in Greek'. Greek is at the heart of this book; a confection of spiritualised sensual Hellenism.

So: Kôr -- the long 'o' is the giveaway. This is a Greek word, not an Old Norse one (Haggard had been educated in Greek, after all; not Old Norse). The Greek Κῶρ (Kôr) means a leather pouch, a little bladder, a small wallet, a sac: Κῶρυκις, according to Liddell and Scott is 'a bladder like excrescence produced on the leaves of elms and maple trees'; Κῶρυκος is 'a leathern sack or wallet'. But this is dancing around the issue. The Greeks called these things words beginning with Κῶρ because these things are ballsack-like and Κῶρ means balls ('the scrotum' is L&S's more delicate phrase). This is where the novel's action takes place: in the mysterious land of Balls.

What of 'She'? She is the woman who says 'yes' to sex ('Ayesha', her name has a 'yes' at the heart of it); the woman who positively worships male sexual beauty -- the name of her original lover, Καλλικράτης, means 'beautiful strength'. The novel makes a fetish of She, but not on her own terms; 'She' is nothing without the male member to make her whole, and she is prepared to wait two thousand years for the right one to come along. This, I hardly need to add, is the very definition of the phallocentric reduction of the female principle.

Indeed, the male member defines her in more ways than this.  The novel's phallic imagery, from spears and knives to pillars of fire, is all clean, purifying, strong, potent: the roofs may have fallen off the palaces and temples, but 'owing to their extreme massiveness' the 'great columns still remained standing' [259]. Of course they did. Indeed, 'She' is only desirable whilst she embodies this strength ('a tall white figure', 'a perfect and imperial shape', 'serpent-like') and she is at her best when she acts like Holly's phallus: 'as I stretched out my hands to clasp, she straightened herself, and a quick change passed over her ... life-—radiant, ecstatic, wonderful—seemed to flow from her.' Phew!. When's she happy, Ayesha grows literally erect and straight ('she shook her gauzy covering from her ... rising from her wrappings, as it were, she stood forth ... stretching out her rounded ivory arms') and when she's sad she shrinks down into detumescence ('her lovely oval face seemed to fall in and grow visibly thinner ... she bent down'). And the heart of her kingdom is the source of her power, the great 'pillar of fire' that stands up tall and makes Holly feel good: 'I rejoiced in this splendid vigour of a new-found self.' And not just him, neither: the magic phallus has remarkable effects on Vincey and Holly both:
We became sensible of a wild and splendid exhilaration, of a glorious sense of such a fierce intensity of Life ... we gazed at each other in the glorious glow, and laughed aloud in the lightness of our hearts and the divine intoxication of our brains. ... it was as though the bonds of my flesh had been loosened and left the spirit free to soar to the empyrean of its native power. The sensations that poured in upon me are indescribable. I seemed to live more keenly, to reach to a higher joy, and sip the goblet of a subtler thought than ever it had been my lot to do before. I was another and most glorified self, and all the avenues of the Possible were for a space laid open to the footsteps of the Real.

On the other hand, Ayesha's kingdom is also threaded with images of monstrous feminity, from the vision of uterus-as-horror-chamber of 'the cave of torture' ('I afterwards saw this dreadful place,' Holly tells us; 'slabs of a porous stone, were stained quite dark with the blood of ancient victims that had soaked into them. Also in the centre of the room was a place for a furnace, with a cavity wherein to heat the historic pot'), to the 'honeycomb of sepulchres' filled with death and decay.  And, ultimately, this is revealed to be the true nature of Ayesha herself:
I faint even as I write it in the living presence of that terrible recollection—-she was shrivelling up ... and in place of the perfect whiteness of its lustre it turned dirty brown and yellow, like an piece of withered parchment. She felt at her head: the delicate hand was nothing but a claw now, a human talon like that of a badly-preserved Egyptian mummy ... Smaller she grew, and smaller yet, till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the shapeless face was the stamp of unutterable age. I never saw anything like it; nobody ever saw anything like the frightful age that was graven on that fearful countenance, no bigger now than that of a two-months' child, though the skull remained the same size, or nearly so, and let all men pray they never may, if they wish to keep their reason. At last she lay still, or only feebly moving. She, who but two minutes before had gazed upon us the loveliest, noblest, most splendid woman the world has ever seen, she lay still before us, near the masses of her own dark hair, no larger than a big monkey, and hideous—ah, too hideous for words. And yet, think of this—-at that very moment I thought of it—-it was the same woman! [294]
'Oh, the horrible pathos of the sight!' notes the narrator, adding a sage footnote: 'What a terrifying reflection it is, by the way, that nearly all our deep love for women who are not our kindred depends-—at any rate, in the first instance—-upon their personal appearance. If we lost them, and found them again dreadful to look on, though otherwise they were the very same, should we still love them?' It's a profound truth: for is not upstanding pure beauty of the phallus not, in some sense, the same thing as these wrinkled monkey-brown shrivelled-up sacs? Oh, horrible!

That's enough lurid balls for now.

[Various format e-texts of the novel here]

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 9: Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (2003)

More of this.

And here, with crashing inevitability, is the ninth best-selling book of all time (more than 70 million sales): the only one of the top-ten titles published in the 21st-century, the only one by a living author, and so on, and so forth. You know this score. It's drivel, but drivel of a bafflingly popular sort. I was pleased, in a petty way, to see that my own name crops up on the novel's Wikipedia page; because, yes, I have gotten closer to this novel, in various ways, than most normal people have done, or might want to.

It's tempting simply to lay into this book on account of its egregious shitness. On the other hand, it seems to me (I suppose) that slagging off The Da Vinci Code is, really, the least interesting thing to do with it. So I set myself a challenge: what can I say, by way of praising the novel, perhaps even by way of explaining why it has been such a behemothic success? Well, alright.  For although the prose is bad, the infodumping tiresome and the characterisation so meagre it seems wrong to apply a word as long and complicated as 'characterisation' to it -- let's call it 'Crct-ing' -- yet the plotting is effective. The plotting is not complex, or challenging, or very good, and it causes plausibility to strain and bulge like a condom stuffed with walnuts, but it is effective.  By that I mean: you read on, to find out what's going to happen next, and to find out what's going on. Writing a 450-page book that readers want, actively, to keep reading all the way through is something; and whilst booknerds like me will tend to sneer, many of the 70 million people who bought copies of this book were people who don't read much, or at all. Getting people who don't read novels interested enough in something for them actually to read a novel is something, too.

More, there is a kind of category error in much of the contumely this novel has called forth from its critics. They take the book very seriously, and lambast it accordingly for what are (nobody would deny) a pantechnicon of errors, distortions, factual idiocies and plagarisms. But this criticism mistakes its target. It is not The Da Vinci Code that is notable; it is only The Da Vinci Code's commercial success. On its own terms, and if we put aside the money it has earned, we're looking at a slight, silly but time-passing yarn (Tom Hanks, in an interview, put his finger on it: the book 'is filled with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense'); a yarn that happens to touch on a couple of quite interesting ideas. Those ideas may strike you as trite, or clumsy, or even as so well-worn as not to need stating: but the success of the book implies, I think, that for many people they are none of those things. When I say 'a couple of ideas', by the way, I mean just that: there are two ideas in this book, both of them quite interesting and both, I think, more progressive than people give Brown credit for being. Incidentally, by 'two ideas' I don't mean 'the Priory of Sion' and 'The Knight's Templar.'  Those aren't ideas, they're thriller pretexts, and rather dull ones at that.

No, I'm talking about two broader ideas.  And here's the first: that the world is not as it seems, and that -- particularly where high culture, established religion, wealth and power are concerned -- you need to dig down beneath the surface appearance of things to get at the truth. Now this is an idea both powerful and dangerous, for applied with too much force to a receptive consciousness it can easily lead to conspiracy-theorising, batshittery and all manner of 'lizards secretly rule the world', 'the moon landings never happened' and '9-11 was an inside job' idiocy. But it is an important idea nonetheless; and insofar as a large constituency of people on the planet are in the habit of taking things, particularly Established Things like church and government, precisely at face value, it is a progressive one. Of course, this idea is shrouded around in the book with a great deal of chaff and bollocks; but that matters less, I think, than people think it does. And whilst I'm on the subject -- 'Chaff and Bollocks': are those good names for a duo of crime-solving dudes? Not good names? Ah well. Back to the drawing board for me.

The second idea is a better one, I think.  It is that Christianity, historically, has undervalued female-ness, to the point of (for much of its history) actively stigmatising and oppressing women. This idea gets articulated in the novel both as a corollary to the idea that 'aboriginal' Christian dogma was much more progressive, in gender terms, and also is presented as secret to be uncovered. The fact that you, personally, may consider this a 'no-shit-sherlock' kind of secret may not be the most relevant reaction. A great many of Brown's biggest fans encountered this idea with a shock of revelation. They could of course have come across the idea in many other places, and most of those places it would have been better put, more sanely developed and so on; but the fact remains, they didn't, and they weren't going to. Of course (again) the idea itself is rendered into fiction via a lot of pfiffly running-about nonsense, as well as a quantity of active slandering of the Catholic Church (although at its end the novel pulls back from some of its more offensive anti-Catholicism). But to focus on the pfiffly details rather than the big idea is to miss something important about why so very many people fell for this title, I think.

So, yes; despite some brain strain on my part, I'm thinking myself into imagining why this novel should be the 9th-best-selling book of all time. And there are reasons.  Moreover, bad though it is, it is a least better than the equally-stupid but considerably-more-turgid ('turgider'?) The Lost Symbol, also now being turned into a movie. I reviewed The Lost Symbol on this very site a couple of years ago, and don't want to rehearse my detailed critique of the novel here. But I'll note one further thing.  The motor of the plot was to uncover the secret word that grants supernatural, demonic power -- the villain of the piece puts Robert Langdon in a tank filled with a fluid supersaturated with breathable oxygen, from where Langdon deduces the word, which the villain then tattoos on his head. The word is this:
Later we discover the word is not this, but is in fact the Bible, or something -- I forget the specifics. But for a while you, the reader, are really being told that the ultimate word, the word to which all others are subordinate, is a pictogram of a tit. It demonstrates, perhaps, Brown's dedication to the female principle.   But I don't want to get distracted.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books, 10: Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (1937)

Off we go, then.

Well, I'd never heard of this one: the 10th best-selling title of all time. I suppose it doesn't surprise me that a self-help manual would make the top-ten; for obviously these sorts of book sell by the barnload. And two things endeared me to this title straight away. One, the author's superbly-formed imperial tumulus of a name. 'Climbing the Napoleon Hill' is, I think we can agree, a euphemism to conjure with. Then I chanced upon this:
The secret of achievement was tantalizingly offered to readers of Think and Grow Rich, but it was never explicitly identified. Hill felt discovering it for themselves would provide readers with the most benefit.
By gum it's true!
The secret to which I refer has not been directly named [in this book], for it seems to work more successfully when it is merely uncovered and left in sight, where THOSE WHO ARE READY, and SEARCHING FOR IT, may pick it up. [3]
This is a touch of such genius I feel the impulse to get out of my chair and salute it. The plan is: to put on sale a book called Think and Grow Rich, to be bought by people who hope to become rich, such that the inside portion of the book is given over to saying, in effect, 'you want to become rich? My advice is to think how to become rich, and then do that.' Ian McKellen would be pleased.

Anyway, the text is available online: you can see for yourself.

Top Ten All-Time Best-Selling Books.

So, over the Christmas break I'm going to put up ten posts running down the top-ten best-selling books of all time. If you want to know what those ten books are, you can follow this link to the Wikipedia page that tells you. But why would you want to do that? That would spoil our fun over the following ten posts, don't you think? Oh, alright, please yourself. I'm not the boss of you.

Here are the parameters, lifted straight from the online encylopedia itself:
Religious books, especially the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Qur'an, are probably the most-printed books, but it is nearly impossible to find reliable sales figures for them. Print figures are missing or unreliable since these books are produced by many different and unrelated publishers. Furthermore, many copies of the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible and the Qur'an are printed and given away free, instead of being sold. The same goes for some political books, such as the works of Mao Zedong or Adolf Hitler. Thus it is impossible to determine either the number printed, or the proportion of those printed that are sold. All such books have been excluded from this list for those reasons.
So, if you exclude the Bible, Qu'ran and Little Red Book, what is the all-time best-selling top ten? Stick with me and you'll see. [Although, having said that, the 'kipedia still include this title in their top 20, despite it being in effect a Seventh Day Adventist holy text. Ah well: consistency is for losers, I guess].

Two notes. One: I'd already read all but two of the titles on this top-ten before starting this exercise. That may or may not surprise you. Two: no Rowling or Steig Larsson in the top 10! Blimey.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Keith Ward, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (2008)

Keith Ward's Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (Lion 2008) is a splendid book, a book of almost Pythonesque silliness. It is, as its subtitle says, a textual means of 'doubting Dawkins'. And since Ward is a former Professor of Philosophy from London, and is now Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford, I like to believe that he intends the whole thing as a joke: a confection of god-of-the-gaps and appeals-to-authority, mixed in with some marvellously stretched-out nitpicking and point-missing where Dawkins is concerned. God-of-the-gaps? There are, Ward asserts, two games in town: spiritualism or materialism. The latter won't do. Why?
We are no longer very sure what 'matter' is. Is it quarks, or superstrings, or dark energy, or the result of quantum fluctuations in a vacuum? It is certainly not, as the ancient Greek materialist Democritus thought, lumps of hard solid stuff -- invisible atoms -- bumping into one another and forming complicated conglomerations that we call people. [14]
It seems to me that this depends upon what we mean by 'hard', 'solid' and 'stuff'; but Ward is happy that he has herein completely demolished materialism as a viable philosophical position.
What is the point of being a materialist when we are not sure exactly what matter is? [15]
Parody doesn't get any sharper than this! Brilliant stuff. (Since not even Ward can claim wholly to comprehend the deity he worships, he is beautifully finessing the obvious 'What is the point of being a theist when we are not sure exactly what theos is?')

There's more: he says [23] that his decision to get up in the morning and write Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, rather than (say) stay in bed or have a cup of coffee, cannot be explained by science. Beautiful! 'How can my talk of knowledge, desires, intentions and awareness translate into statements of physics that only relate to physical states?' There are many rhetorical questions like this in the book; and Ward is aware that some scientists have set out to answer them; so although sometimes he's happy to leave his questions hanging, from time to time he fleshes out answers. Now, one book I personally admire very much, which addresses precisely this issue (that is to say, lays out how the physics of brain chemistry underpins human behaviour) is Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained. There's the possibility that the arguments of Dennet's book could undermine Ward's splendid rhetorical question ('how can my thoughts translate into statements of physics?'), and indeed his whole book.  But it's ok -- he's got that covered:
Daniel Dennett [believes] that conscious states are 'nothing more than' brain-states and brain-behaviour. Dennett wrote a book called Consciousness Explained in which he defended this radical theory. Most competent philosophers were unconvinced and privately referred to his book as 'Consciousness Explained Away' [16]
No further engagement with Dennett is needful: for any philosopher who agreed with him would, by definition, be announcing their incompetence. But Ward's appeal to authority does not stop with certain unnamed philosophers. It also includes a large number of unnamed people who all agree with him about God:
If you are thinking seriously about the God hypothesis it will be very strong evidence if a large number of people, apparently well balanced, intelligent and virtuous, feel that God has met them in the proclamation of Christ's teaching, death and resurrection. [140]
Irrefutable! There are something like 2.5 billion Christians on the planet. That fact alone proves Christianity is true. Of course, there are also 1.5 billion Muslims, but you can disregard them: they are not competent philosophers -- in private we call their religion 'Isnotlam'.

It would be nice to be more serious about the arguments Ward puts forward, but, really, it's difficult to see how. The main spine of the book's thesis is the appeal to 'personal explanation': that human consciousness cannot be explained by science and must therefore be grounded in a primary, infinite, divine consciousness. His 'two big' objections to Dawkins are: 'the irreducible existence of consciousness' and 'the irreducible nature of personal explanation'. As to the first, it seems to me that nobody who has observed a loved-one diminish under the effects of Alzheimer's disease could ever genuinely claim that human consciousness can never be reduced. (Ward means 'reduced to scientific explanation', but the point holds, I think: if consciousness is a function of brain activity as Dennett says, then deterioration in the material capacity of the brain through disease or illness would lead to deterioration in the consciousness of the individual concerned. Which is precisely what we see). And when it comes to his second question, I'd say Ward uses 'irreducible' when he means 'distinctive'.  And anyway, the 'irreducible nature of personal explanation' has no bearing on the larger question. That's not only my view, incidentally: it's also Ward's: 'what human beings can imagine or picture to themselves is not a reliable guide to the ultimate nature of reality' [109].

Thursday, 1 December 2011

John Varley, In the Hall of the Martian Kings (1978)

In the title story, a group of Martian explorers are trapped on the red planet when the plastic tents they're living in are deflated by plasticophage alien bugs. It's good, foresquare, old fashioned golden-age-y fun, as the group struggles to survive until the rescue mission is launched from Earth, and gradually mutates into the first true Martian settlers. One of the characters may be black, I'm not sure. I may have been misreading Varley's cues. What do you think?
At this distance he would have been unable to tell who she was if it weren't for the black face.
Hmm. Not sure.
Mary Lang, the black woman, was sitting on the edge of Lou Prager's cot
So difficult to tell, when a text is as colourblind as this one.
The floor heaved up in the center, throwing the black woman to her knees.
Hmm. Maybe all the characters are black? Hard to say.