Iv’e already written a bit about this magnum opus here. That was just a first instalment! As I note in my earlier blog, Joe bought me this years ago and it has lain unopened by my bed for years – a somewhat daunting project to start. I loved Michael Schmidt’s history of poetry, Lives of the Poets, which I read ages ago. And now that I have started this, I’m enjoying it too. My preference is just to read it straight through, rather than dipping in and out on a particular author or book which is perhaps how it is intended to be read. I like the chronological view although he mixes old and new in each chapter which I also like. I’m up to page 604 – out of 1106 – but who’s counting? I’m intent on enjoying the journey.
One of the authors that Schmidt quotes frequently is Henry James, especially from The Art of Fiction which is described as one of the great theoretical statements about the novel. I had already embarked on reading by, and about Henry, so I found all of this quite interesting. It’s added a lot to my appreciation of my re-read of The Portrait of a Lady and the story of how it was written as described here.
However Schmidt has encouraged me to venture into some classics that I haven’t hitherto delved into. Here are the ones read so far – I suspect there will be more. Which means getting through the Schmidt will take longer.
The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad is included in Schmidt’s chapter headed Pessimists (alongside Thomas Hardy and Stephen Crane). Appropriate. I actually bought and read a new copy of this book, which I now can’t find. The Introduction in this version was helpful. I quite enjoyed it, but in this day and age it is all a bit over-wrought. I did like the framing of the story; having it told two voices removed, the original narrator listening to Marlow tell it to the seamen on the boat – underlines the authenticity of the witnesses says Schmidt. And the cross referencing; the reference by Marlow at the start to when the Romans first came up the Thames which we remember when he is describing his voyage up the Congo. And the circularity when we leave the boat under the black bank of clouds on the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth, seemingly leading into the heart of an immense darkness; which reminds us where we’ve been. The outline of the story is clear but but the horror encountered is largely left to the reader’s imagination. Perhaps I’m not imaginative enough! You get the picture – civilisation is only thin deep, we are all at risk of succumbing to – what exactly? In his confrontation with Kurtz in the jungle Marlow describes it as a struggle with a soul; But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and , by heavens. I tell you it had gone mad … I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself. And so, to Marlow Kurtz’s last words make sense – The horror! The horror! All a bit opaque to me. And reading it now, you can’t quite get visions of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now out of your head; not that I’ve seen that movie! I agree with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe quoted in Schmidt who calls out the racism inherent in this novel – so-called civilised Belgian administrators completely dehumanised the native people with whom they came into contact. In this book, despite Conrad being comparatively progressive for his time, they are completely denied any sense of humanity.
Travels With A Donkey In The Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson gets a good work out in Schmidt’s book; although regarding novels other than this one, which I read somewhere, but now can’t find, was one of the very first models for subsequent travel writing. I chose it because I’d seen the film Antoinette In the Cevennes at the French Film Festival in which a woman takes the same journey with a donkey – it’s now something of a tourist destination. In the film the donkey’s name is Patrick, and I thought, after reading this, that it was faithful to the tone of Stevenson. I bought it on Amazon as an ebook having been unsuccessful finding it anywhere else and it taught me a lesson – as a work out of copyright it seems to have been translated from a French translation of the original. With sometimes humorous results – I came upon a financial institution instead of I came upon a bank! Despite these difficulties I quite enjoyed this description of his journey through the Cevennes with donkey Modestine. You get a good picture of life in provincial France at the time – pretty hard and sometimes very unfriendly! You hear about Stevenson’s trouble with his camping gear and difficulty finding appropriate places to sleep – often outdoors, sometimes in local inns. Nice. I also liked the film.
Howards End, E.M. Forster
I’ve always wanted to read this book which Schmidt describes as Forster’s most ambitious novel … about the problems of inheriting a house with its history and ghosts, an emblem of a vulnerable and changing England. He wrote it in 1910. I loved everything about it, especially its heroine – Margaret Schlegel. The older of two sisters she is a wonderful character and you – or at least I – become very involved in what happens to her. She has largely been responsible for her two siblings since the death of both parents; English mother, German father. So their upbringing has not been conventional. Leading to lots of observations about the proper and improper ways of doing things. Their lives interconnect with the Wilcox family, owners of the house called Howards End. Especially through Mrs Wilcox who takes a shine to Margaret. There are three Wilcox children and their father is a successful businessman. So class differences make an appearance. Wilcox upper, Schlegel middle and a working class couple, Leonard and Jacky Bast who play a pivotal role in the story. Mrs Wilcox and Margaret become friends, but not for long. Mrs Wilcox dies and makes a bequest. Her family members are surprised and dismayed and take steps to thwart it. Forthright and upright Margaret befriends Mr Wilcox. More ups and downs ensue. The blurb on this Penguin edition says the idea at the heart of this book is connection. I’m not so sure. It’s more about character and your sense of morality I think. In any event the story rattles along and I was riveted. Unlike other Forster novels – A Room With A View, Maurice – I haven’t seen the film, but I now intend to; Emma Thompson should be a perfect Margaret and Vanessa Redgrave is Mrs Wilcox and Anthony Hopkins Mr Wilcox.
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes: the last twelve tales of the great detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Schmidt tells us that Conan Doyle said that the purpose of fiction is to amuse mankind, to help the sick and the dull and the weary. I’ve read lots of Sherlock Holmes stories, starting when I was at secondary school, but have to confess to forgetting them almost as soon as I finish. I sort of remember The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Dancing Men (I kept a copy of the legend from that story). But once I start reading a story they come back; which is the case with The Sussex Vampire which is included in this collection which I picked up at our neighbourhood library across the road. It was first published in 1927 and contains a delightful preface by the author written at that time. He had earlier tried to kill of Holmes, writing in 1896 I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day. But in 1901 he brought him back. In this preface Conan Doyle notes Holmes’s career has been a long one – though it is possible to exaggerate it; decrepit gentlemen who approach me and declare that his adventures formed the reading of their boyhood do not meet the response from me which they seem to expect. One is not anxious to have one’s personal dates handled so unkindly. He started the stories with A Study In Scarlet published in 1887 and The Sign of The Four published in 1891 (read but not remembered). He considered his Holmes stories lighter sketches and didn’t want them to detract from his other varied branches of literature as history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research and the drama. Sad to say they have indeed – Conan Doyle is forever associated with Holmes. Re-reading him the reason is clear. Schmidt tells us he wanted to write stories in which science took the place of chance. And indeed this is the case. It’s very cleverly done but looked at carefully – and after all is revealed – you can follow the deductions quite clearly. The way the problem is initially described is always in somewhat hysterical terms; to wit the suggestion of a vampire in Sussex. The solutions are much tamer – strip away the schlocky rhetoric and the solution is obvious. Conan Doyle concludes his preface; so, reader farewell to Sherlock Holmes! I thank you for your past constancy, and can but hope that some return has been made in the shape of that distraction from the worries of life and stimulating change of thought which can only found in the fairy kingdom of romance. Such a return has certainly been made for this reader and many others.