Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Tragic Comedians - George Meredith
Meredith’s prose tests one’s intelligence. Can you follow the intricacies of his sentences to the end, or will you lose the strand of thought and find yourself sinking in the bog of your own ignorance? The book’s first sentence – though not as formidable as many – can serve as an example: “An unresisted lady-killer is probably less aware that he roams the pastures in pursuit of a coquette, than is the diligent Arachne that her web is for the devouring lion.” Despite the difficulties, his words are elegantly arranged, and they do lead somewhere. The problem with this novel, taken as a whole, hinges on where we ultimately wind up. Meredith presents us with Alvan, an all-powerful male figure, a brilliant Adonis. He’s also noble: his aim is to raise up the consciousness of the lower classes. This forty-year-old man meets Clotilde, a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl/woman; they fall in love at first sight. Of course it’s no ordinary love but one that scales the Alpine heights. Alvan wants to marry her legally; she begs him to run off with her. The problem, which she perceives and he doesn’t (he believes he can overcome any obstacle), is her brutish parents; they abhor this Jew, this demagogue, and they will do anything to prevent the marriage. The battle lines are drawn halfway through the novel, and though there’s almost no action – just speech, thoughts and feelings – I was interested in who would prevail. But, as I neared the conclusion, what I got were flailing histrionics and preposterous plot twists. My reaction: All that intelligence and then this? In his introduction Meredith asserts that the “fantastical” elements of his story are based on fact; such a man as Alvan existed and “was of a mighty nature.” Nothing, he claims, is invented, including the “lurid catastrophe” at the end. Really? I don’t buy it. It’s Meredith who injected the gargantuan aspects; the characters, as depicted by him, never walked this earth.

Collected Short Stories - Robert Graves
How could the author of the magisterial I, Claudius turn out such fluff? Apparently Graves didn’t take the short form seriously (though he did care about honing his prose, which is inventive and lively). In the introduction he writes that “Pure fiction is beyond my imaginative range.” In keeping with this statement, he’s a participant or an observer in the stories that he categorizes as English and Majorcan (he lived for a time in Majorca). Of these, the best – “A Toast to Ava Gardner” and “Treacle Tart” – rise to the level of pleasant diversions. A third group are set in ancient Rome; I read only one of them and found it to be silly.

John Barleycorn - Jack London
These “Alcoholic Memoirs” have merit beyond their considerable entertainment value. London begins with his early years, but he provides no pleasant boyhood reminiscences. Instead he recounts how, at age thirteen, he worked in a cannery – ten hour days, six days a week, for a dollar a day; he rebelled against this life and also formed his socialistic views, seeing our capitalistic system as a gristmill in which human beings are ground down. More than half the book is devoted to the period from ages fifteen to seventeen, when he became an oyster pirate. He was on the water, free, engaged in high adventure, associating with larger-than-life desperados – men he admired and emulated. Though I didn’t believe London was the swashbuckling figure he depicts himself to be, this section is significant in that it marks the start of his serious drinking. He stresses that he had no physiological inclination for alcohol. He drank only to be accepted by the people he hung around with; outside that social context he didn’t drink because he had no desire to do so. He covers his gold-seeking venture in the Yukon in one page (all he got out of it, he states, was a case of scurvy). He’s sketchy about his rise to success as a writer, and the life he led subsequently is not examined in any depth. It needed to be, because it was when he was seemingly blessed with every advantage – money, a wife and children – that a psychological need for alcohol grew in him. He personifies his problem in an entity he calls John Barleycorn. London’s outlook, once robust and positive, becomes subject to John Barleycorn’s “White Logic,” which sees all beliefs and values as attempts to make a meaningless existence bearable. He became plagued by disillusionment and despair. But London doesn’t treat John Barleycorn for what he is: a self-destructive force inside himself that, for whatever reasons, gained dominance. To make those reasons comprehensible would have required him to reveal much more about intimate personal matters, and this he refuses to do. In the pedantic last chapters London turns social reformer and philosopher. He ends things on a hopeful note, but it’s half-hearted. Crouching in the shadows is John Barleycorn, who will prevail. The author died three years after this memoir was published, at age forty-two. The cause of death was uremic poisoning, a condition aggravated by alcohol.

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