Atlas Shrugged…

March 1, 2012

I like to read things I disagree with – keeps me sharp.  Besides, if I’m going to condemn something, a movie, a book, a philosophy, I prefer to have dealt with the original.  Thus, I began this doorstop of a novel.  I’ve read short pieces by Ayn Rand, and found them lacking.  Fifty pages or so into this one, I had to stop.  The book is without any literary merit whatsoever.  Even that commie turned red baiter, Whittaker Chambers, reviewing it on publication said that to call it a novel was to “demean the term.”  Hey, he was right about Alger Hiss, too!

The one book that this writing reminds me of very strongly is What is To Be Done?  That too is without literary merit.  Ironic, isn’t it?  A book of right-wing libertarian cliches is the literary twin of the bible of the early Russian revolutionaries.  Both have characters of phantastic nobility, character, discipline and resolve.  Both are …

Well, read it if you can.

Who wrote Don Quixote?

May 27, 2010

Silly question, isn’t it?  Miguel Cervantes, right? 

I first read Don Q. years ago, in fits and starts, in a translation by Tobias Smollett.  That was fun – I like that 18th century English – but it did place the book at a remove.  Now I’m reading Edith Grossman’s recent translation, and it is a wonder!  The voice is completely contemporary, and so funny!

So, the book is 900 pages long and I’m on page 70, and I’m already up to my eyeballs in self-referential, meta-literary, quasi-meta-narrative intellectual pretzels!  Did I mention that it’s funny?

Cervantes wrote the book, and presumably is the narrator.  The narrator is omniscient.  Or he seems to be.  That is, he knows a lot of things he couldn’t know from reviewing primary sources, but on the other hand, there is a lot he doesn’t know.  Or does he just choose not to tell:

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago…

That’s how it begins, and that’s how it goes on.  At the point I just reached, Don Quixote is engaged in combat with another man he takes to be a villain, and is poised to cleave him in two with his sword.  The action breaks off and the ‘first part’ ends – something that is typical in chivalric romances I am informed by a translator’s footnote.  The author, Cervantes, then informs us that he was at a complete loss as to what happened next in this story he is telling us.  That is, until he happened upon a manuscript, quite by chance, written in Arabic, that is a translation of the second part of the battle tale.  He hires a translator, and provides us with the remainder of the text.

He warns us that we must not blame him if the story leaves out essential details since he relied on a Morisco to produce the text from the manuscript, and they are notoriously liars.  (Of course, he is referring to himself here.)  The Morisco laughed when he first saw the manuscript because of the funny annotation in the margin, written by a previous reader, saying that Dulcinea, the peasant whom Quixote imagines a princess, is well known for her skill in preparing pork.  Aha, so she’s real after all!

Centuries later, the Argentine writer, Borges, would comment on this with his short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, the tale of a man who had so absorbed the meaning and style of Don Quixote, that he sat down and begin to write it out, word for word, again.  And of course, his version was even better than the real thing!

Lost Illusions

March 9, 2009


I started to read Balzac’s Les Illusions Perdues in college, dropped it, and finished it a few years later.  I found it dull.  I guess I had some illusions of my own.  I have just finished reading it again, and I think it’s one of the greatest novels I know.  (Franco Moretti regards it as the greatest novel.)  Reading it is like being dropped into the heavy molten magma of life, as the editor of my Modern Library edition refers to it.  Or was it lava?

This long story has three parts and turns on the adventures of Lucien Chardon, a vain but talented provincial young man, our poet,  who has the singular luck of being gifted with the brilliant good looks of Apollo.  He and his friend, David Sechard, dream of success:  he as a poet lionized in Paris; David as an inventor rich on the basis of a new paper manufacturing process.   Lucien makes his way to Paris as the would-be lover of the local aristocratic belle,  but she dumps him when the dazzling city shows him up as something of a provincial clod.  He has much to learn.

Lucien falls in with some serious intellectual types, pledged to poverty and truth, but he quickly moves on to richer pastures, despite a few moral qualms.  He rises like a rocket in the cut throat world of journalism, moves in  with a young, gorgeous, adoring actress, wreaks havoc with the reputations of his former patroness, and plots his entry to the ranks of the nobility on the basis of his mother’s family name.  Meanwhile, his enemies, who have no illusions, plot his ruin.  His fall is as rapid as his rise, and in his selfishness, he manages to drag down his old friend by forging some checks in his name.  The third part of the book narrates his ignominious return home, and the struggles of David to make good on his inventions.

The brutally sharp dealing and downright fraud by which David Sechard is parted from his money and his patent rights is portrayed in detail that is both excruciating and exasperating.  Clearly, Balzac was writing from more than a literary point of view – he is passionate in his portrayal of the materialistic and cyncial values of the actors.  In the end, David comes out all right, but not wealthy, and is happily married to Lucien’s beautiful sister. 

Lucien resolves on suicide, but those who find his note understand that if he does not end his life immediately, he will be safe.  His shame and remorse won’t last too long – he’ll start building castles in the air again.  As it is, on the brink, he is picked up by a traveller, Vautrin, Cheat-Death, Carlos Herrera, the ominous, Machiavellian, homosexual operator who moves in and out of Balzac’s Human Comedy.  Herrera buys Lucien’s body and soul for the amount of David’s debts and the promise of revenge.   

Next stop, A Harlot High and Low or  Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, where the adventures of Lucien continue!