Monday, 14 January 2013

1001 Books Reviews: Kindle Reads Edition

This new Kindle of mine is not good for my to-read pile, although it is already doing excellent things to the status of my 1001 Books challenge. I can now get endless out-of-copyright books for free, and this has sent me slightly loopy with excitement. Here's a quick run-down of my latest classic reads.

Vathek by William Beckford

A lot of people wonder why I'm doing this 1001 Books project. To be honest, when I stare into a future consisting of the whole of The Forsyte Saga, I wonder as well. But while there are some 'classics' that give reading for pleasure a bad name (James Joyce, I am looking at you), there are some that remind me that there's method to my madness. And Vathek turns out to be one of the latter.

One of my favourite Gothic novels of all time is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. This completely bonkers little book was one of the novels that kicked off the entire genre - and when you consider that it starts with a GIANT, UNEXPLAINED HELMET just FALLING OUT OF THE SKY and CRUSHING SOME GUY TO DEATH, you understand why people (especially me) have loved the Gothic ever since.

To my great joy, Vathek turns out to be The Castle of Otranto with camels. Completely insane and completely nonsensical, it's the literary equivalent of a Vegas showgirl's outfit, an outrageous flight of fancy by someone who has absolutely no idea what he's talking about and doesn't even care. It's a nonsense view of the Middle East, so off-target that it's almost beyond offensive (note: almost, but not quite), just because it so little resembles any actual Middle East that ever was or will be.

Illustration by Richard Westall, V&A collection
Marina Warner's Stranger Magic, which I read a few months ago, explains how the first European translation of The Thousand and OneNights, Antoine Galland's 1704-17 French version, sparked off a massive fetishy craze for all things Oriental. People literally could not get enough of houris and dervishes and magic carpets, and you can absolutely see this coming out in Vathek. There are evil enchantresses and mummies and camels (which I think Beckford may have confused with elephants) and deadly potions and Genii and riches beyond compare... and so on, and so on, in total excess, for ever.

There really isn't a plot, to speak of - things just happen, and keep on happening, until the story ends with everyone dead in a big ridiculous heap. Nominally, it's about Vathek, an evil ruler who has a Palace of Sin, and... goes on a quest to find some sort of Oriental hell (said quest keeps being interrupted as Beckford gets bored and makes new plots up). Vathek also has a super-evil enchantress mother, who likes killing people and has a poisonous camel (the mother and the camel are my favourite parts of this book), and they do stuff, and then they meet this beautiful princess and... I don't even know. It's like all of the Arabian Nights got rolled up into one. Vathek is totally crazy and ridiculous, and also terribly written, and I totally loved it.

3.5 stars

Trilby by George du Maurier

I am a Dracula superfan. Seriously. I am so obsessed that I am tiresome about it. Start me talking about the lack of good movie versions of this book and I could bore you for hours. Also I wrote an essay for my MA about Freud and Dracula, on how Dracula's female vampires are just poorly-disguised hysterics who need to be cured by the love (and the stakes) of good Victorian men (think about this. It is true). So when I heard people saying that the Svengali character in Trilby is basically the Count Dracula of the music scene, in that he is villainously foreign and enjoys altering the character of women by hypnosis, I knew I had to read the book. It was the first thing I downloaded on my new Kindle, and the first thing I read on it, and I thought that it was awesome.

Trilby, although it's been largely forgotten about today (apart from when people talk about an overbearing impresario being a 'Svengali', and even then they've usually got no idea what they're really referring to), was a huge craze when it came out. It was basically the Twilight of 1894. In the same way that people buy underwear and bedspreads with Edward's face on them today, people in 1894 bought Trilby perfume, and Trilby boots, and Trilby hats (yes, trilby hats! That's where the term comes from).

Trilby is about three English bohemians in Paris in the 1850s - think the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood gone Gallic - and the artists' model they all fall for, Irish lass Trilby O'Farrell. I was expecting Trilby to be a mimsy little Dickens heroine, or a slender and fainting fin-de-siecle angel, but instead she's a big, rowdy, fun-loving woman with a great sense of humour. For once, it's not hard to see why every man she comes across is so fascinated by her - the three Englishmen, of course, and all their friends, but also their sinister foreign acquaintance Svengali. Svengali's possibly Jewish (it's that kind of latently racist book), a musical impresario who's got a good sideline in hypnotism. He loves Trilby in a way that's terribly creepy (his most-used chat-up line is basically: if you don't love me then one day I will come VISIT YOUR CORPSE IN THE GRAVEYARD, which... is not a turn-on), and keeps trying to hypnotise her in a pretty obvious bid to get her under his evil spell.

One of du Maurier's original drawings
Unsurprisingly, Trilby is not taken with Svengali. More inexplicably, she is taken with one of the three Englishmen, the painter Little Billee (I know. His name is awful, twee and tiresome, just like Little Billee himself), but after their love-affair is broken up by Billee's officious middle-class idiot of a mother, Billee and his friends lose track of Trilby. Five years later, though, they hear about a mysterious Madame Svengali who's taking the whole world by storm with her astonishing vocal feats. And Madame Svengali is always accompanied by her husband, who manages her stage performances and seems to control her in every way...

It's really interesting to read this book now, because (just like Dracula) its main plot twist has become so immediately obvious. In 2013 it's impossible to get more than ten pages into Dracula without thinking, dude. Come on. He's a VAMPIRE, and likewise you can't read Trilby without understanding that Trilby is being hypnotised. Both ideas were completely new when the books first came out - that was one of the reasons why they were so popular - but while in one respect this makes their plots totally dated, there's also something about the characters' totally shocked responses to the nature of the horror that's unfolding in front of them that still feels fresh.

It also doesn't hurt that Trilby is such a great heroine. She's in the Mina Harker mould of smart, bold New Women, and while she's obviously not without her issues, she's a damn sight better than most of the rest of the leading women of the time. And then there's all the Bohemian hijinx that goes on at the beginning of the book (fun, if rambling), and the super hyped-up theatrical scenes at the end (fun, if OTT). I can absolutely see why 1894 loved this book so much. In fact, I pretty much agree with them.

4 stars.

A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift

The fact that I read A Modest Proposal for the first time a week ago is one of the dark literary secrets of my heart. It was on my university reading list and I, er, didn't see it there, I guess. I sat in my seminar for an hour nodding intelligently and privately thinking EATING BABIES? What IS this? Well, I can now tell you that A Modest Proposal is indeed about eating babies. More specifically, it's a deceptively calm and understated response to the problem of Irish poverty that suggests that it would be cost-effective to just eat the nation's excess children.

Swift lays out a whole economic model: each baby would fetch so much money and would save so many pounds of food a year, and their skins could be made into so much leather, and so on, and so on. I know it was written more than 200 years ago, but I can very easily imagine this being published today as a long comment piece in a left-leaning paper, ironically insisting that we all pop down to the Job Centre and pick ourselves up a tasty NEET or two for dinner. Swift's prose is incredibly dark and very barbed, but (probably because of that darkness) it's also extremely funny. Sadly, it's also still very relevant.

The Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

I'm pretty much lumping this together with A Modest Proposal. They're both polemical state-of-the-nation pieces dressed up as bits of almost-fantasy - with, in The Tale of a Tub's case, a side of transparent allegory. The Tale itself comes chopped up into little bits, with random little pieces, or 'digressions', about criticism and authorship and modern taste shoved in between its chapters. These are funny and quite clever in themselves (I guess), but also pointedly pointless and with their wit incredibly overworked in that special self-hating eighteenth century style that really hasn't aged well. Honestly, they nearly finished me off. I had to strive to get through them - but every time I got close to breaking point, another part of the Tale would come along and wake me up again.

What still works about Swift - and there's something about him that really does still work - is his ability to write satire that, while it obviously started its life directed at a completely contemporary issue, nevertheless manages to pick out timeless human failings that will never stop feeling relevant to readers. The Tale is a criticism of different factions of Christianity, pointing out how far each sect has diverged from the religion's original tenets. It's about three 'brothers' who are given a 'will' by their 'father'. They follow it for a while, and then they all begin to reread the document in ways that fit with what they want out of life. There are lots of really good digs at a lot of holy cows, and while a lot of them are aimed at Catholicism, Anglicanism comes in for a few nice shots too. Swift clearly thought that the whole world was full of idiots (he is probably right), and was very good at communicating that vision in a way that makes you laugh even as you feel depressed.

Swift was most definitely cleverer than me. I think I'd have enjoyed knowing him, back in the day, and I do enjoy reading the things that he's written. But all the same, I don't think I'm ever going to read either A Modest Proposal or The Tale of a Tub again.

They both get 3 stars.

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