Faust Parts One And Two – Goethe

The two parts of Faust, by Goethe, are actually two separate stage plays. Excuse me for treating them as fiction, but these are only tangentially plays, in my view. Not impossible to stage, but you’d chase your audience off pretty darn quick if you tried to put them up, I’m thinking. I’m sure people have. But Goethe was not particularly concerned with conflict here, nor continuity, cohesion nor any of the other C’s authors are taught to consider. As fiction, however, they work for me as modernist, experimental works.

Goethe plunges into what makes a man good or evil. Is it simply being flawed? Lustful? Careless? If so, then his character Faust would seem doomed to be hauled off to hell by the demon Mephistopheles. He is careless of those he loves, but his interest is in experiencing human existence to its fullest. His deal with the devil isn’t really a contract, per se, (many of the mechanical aspects of the play were very hard to interpret. I recommend time with a knowledgeable interpreter; for me that was George Priest) but more of a bet: ‘if you ever catch me sloughing off, you can haul me off to Hades,’ is a rough interpretation of part of it. Very different than the popular understanding of the deal, I think.

There are long, dreary stretches where it is very hard to understand how what is happening on the page has anything to do with the main action of the work. But these are also the parts where Goethe wrestles most directly with the big questions of life, so it’s all a case of what’s to your taste.

So if you like thinking about the nature of reality, of humanity, of hope and despair, this might be the story for you. But be aware you will be running down endless rabbit holes inhabited by Helen of Troy, Paris, and countless other classical personages unfamiliar to all but a few of us. The language, in translation anyway, is beautiful, the storytelling abysmal. Maybe that’s appropriate. I’m glad I read it, but the story begs for someone to come along and update it. I’d say, wait for the movie.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancee Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Idylls of the King – Tennyson

The Song of Hiawatha – Longfellow

Paradise Lost – Milton

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Idylls of the King – Tennyson

I’m reading all these old classics these days, often trying to understand why people liked them so much back in the day, occasionally wondering why they have fallen so out of favor. Idylls of the King, by Tennyson, is one tale where I think I do understand why it is less read these days. Yes, it’s marvelously written, and keeps the reader’s interest all the way through, yes the language is amazing, while conflict is never far away: “She reddening, “Insolent scullion! I of thee? / I bound to thee for any favor ask’d!” / “Then shall he die.” And Gareth there unlaced his helmet… but she shriek’d, / “Be not so hardy, scullion, as to slay / One nobler than thyself.”

In a few lines we are bathed in details of character, emotion, conflict, and situation. Something strange and interesting is happening, and we want to read further to learn what. The language does get dense, but never as confusing as much contemporary work. So why don’t people flock to Idylls of the King? One issue, I suspect, is that the story does not form a continuous narrative. Gareth appears, then fades from view, with no continuity. Who is he, why is he hear, how does he matter? Tennyson does not bother to lay out any of that for his reader. He simply assumes everyone knows the story well enough that he can jump in media res, no context. And back in the 19th century, evidently, he could. But those days are long gone. Few of us know the details of the King Arthur story beyond the King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot triangle, the wizard Merlin and something about a sword.

Furthermore, pieces of the narrative are missing. Why Tennyson chose some of the pieces of the myth to expound that he did is not obvious to me, as entertaining as the tales he laid out are.

Finally, many of the tropes Tennyson works on seem a bit… faded to us these days. The struggle for equality, for meaning, for understanding, none of that is here. Lone eagles out battling evil we have in plenty, of course, but the tension of evil about to win, the huge stakes that make such stories so popular these days, really are not emphasized here.

I guess my take-away from this might be, then, to accept with humility that even our most favored contemporary works may be met with a yawn in a generation’s time. Dust gathers in the most surprising places. And we should not worry much about pleasing any future generations, as we cannot fathom what their concerns and delights may turn out to include.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Song of Hiawatha – Longfellow

Legends of the Condor Heroes – Jin Yong

The Fall Of Gondolin – Tolkien

The Song of Hiawatha – Longfellow

A work written well over a century and a half ago will often show its age, advocating, even as received wisdom, ideas that now seem awful. So why read such work? First off, much that was written then still can be insightful now. And there is no knowing which work holds up, often, without reading it ourselves. The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was revered for generations. Something must be worthwhile in such a work. And indeed, to read such old works can serve as a window into a world long dissolved into history. It points out how people once saw things, and what they didn’t see about themselves, their worlds, their failings and strengths. It is hard to believe readers in the future will not see many such flaws in our own work, however proud we may be today.

So it is here. This is a huge poem by a white guy that cops native ideas, words, and culture for its own purposes. What truth about the natives may have existed then, we see reflected here perhaps only dimly. But it is possible to see that Longfellow respects his subjects, and honors them as best he can, as a noble people, with honor and humanity.

This poem had a huge impact when it came out. My grandfather memorized parts of it, loved it, and recited it back in the day. Many places in Minnesota derive their names from this poem. It presented natives as noble, honorable, curious, and brave, while adding a patina of romanticism, and powerful language, fun to contemplate and quote. “‘What is that,’ he said, ‘Nokomis?… That is but the owl and owlet, / talking in their native language.”

One thing to admire is how deeply Longfellow set his story in its setting. Minnesota was a remote, wild place at the time of this poem, but Longfellow brings it to life with vivid, beautiful language. The story contains much conflict and learning, with surprises and epiphanies. That makes the story very readable. Longfellow displays his skills.

But ultimately, Longfellow’s own biases twist and damage the poem. The hints of condescension and paternalism befoul his message. The sense of superiority, perhaps not even noticeable at the time, when the missionaries arrive near the end to educate, enlighten, and save the natives, jars me now. That attitude leads, perhaps inevitably, to the gratuitous smear of anti-Semitism in the last few pages. Oh, Henry, why did you do that?

I do believe works like this are worth reading. We come to know what was valued then, and what has changed. We are spurred to examine ourselves for our own blind spots and limitations. And we share with those who went before the love of beauty, the hope for a worthy future, and the dedication to the noble and good, however flawed we may be.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Paradise Lost – Milton

Tom Jones – Fielding

The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

Paradise Lost – Milton

Getting into arcane stuff, here, and arguably not even fiction. This is actually a long poem, though it is written in story form. Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is one of those great, lost works of English literature everyone has heard of and almost no one has read. Now, having tackled it, I can sort of see why.

Let me start off by saying there is a great deal of beautiful writing here, amazing language carefully crafted to the point of being gripping simply for the way the words are strung together. Time and again I found myself finding cliches that, along with Shakespeare and the Picture of Dorian Grey, obviously originate here. Even the larger fame of Satan pretty much came from this work, as versus other names for the devil, if I am not mistaken.

That said, the reader must get used to the idea that everything is going to be very familiar. Milton simply decided to expand on the earliest parts of the Book of Genesis. Don’t come into this expecting to be surprised. Of course, fantasy readers are going to have little happy moments… the idea of a huge war between God’s crew and legions of demons really needs to be a huge movie directed by Peter Jackson. And poetry buffs, as I indicated, will have their breath taken away by the language.

One technique I was most grateful for was Milton’s blessed habit of writing up an explanation of what’s to follow at the beginning of each of the twelve books (chapters, roughly). So you don’t have to muddle through the tortured language, trying to figure out what is going on. It’s all laid out clearly, so you can just indulge in the splendor of confusion that is the poetry at its most arcane.

Milton wrote this shortly after the English Civil War, and one wonders that he did not end up having his head chopped off, tackling a religious topic at such a time. He seems to have been savvier than Bunyan, at any rate, who spent years in jail. I’m glad I read Paradise Lost, ultimately, though I can’t imagine it would have much of a contemporary audience, absent that putative huge movie.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Tom Jones – Fielding

The Pilgrim’s Progress – Bunyan

The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

 

Tom Jones – Fielding

Not often does a book gets better as it goes along, but Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, sure seemed funnier towards the end. It’s a very theatrical book, and sure enough, Fielding hustled a living in the theater for a while. So it has all the sensibilities of a French farce — the sexiness, the improbable meetings and near-misses, the impassioned hero who loves one woman but oh, gosh, what about her… if you like that sort of thing, this is for you.

The heroine is too too good for words, but there are plenty of other women willing to be bad, if only Tom will give them a chance. So, expect the improbable. But of course that’s a big part of the fun: the froth, the very unlikelihood of each step, seeing whether the author can pull off his latest plot twist… and generally, he does. This is very carefully plotted, the villains have their reasons, the heroes have their flaws, and people do forgive each other.

The setup went on too long for me. This is not a short novel. But the reader does receive a payoff, ultimately. Let me point out that the book took me literally years to get through, as this is not naturally my thing, and I don’t think that was due to the archaic language, or at least, not much. I would say, think of the beginning as a sample of the whole. If you find yourself smiling, you will likely be happy all the way through. But if you find yourself annoyed… well, you probably won’t think the book worth it if you slog on. I am glad I read it, though, and I did enjoy it more at the end, as all the story threads came together, and the farce began to reach its natural conclusions. Maybe I just felt a sense of satisfaction, that things ended as well as they did.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Pilgrim’s Progress – Bunyan

The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

Gulliver’s Travels – Swift

The Pilgrim’s Progress – Bunyan

What a strange, wild story. The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of a man trying to get to heaven. Christian is his name, and he is beset with many dangers, trials and snares on his way. Upright, loving behavior is required, of course, but also a wariness towards various heresies, the dangers of Papists, on and on. The weirdness of the symbols used often creates interesting passages. Will Christian fail in the Slough of Despond? Which entails walking along up to your neck in muck, I guess. Will he succumb to various nasty giants (each corresponding to some character failing)? Will he display too much loyalty and love for his family, or will he realize that their unwillingness to undertake the journey means he must leave them? Not the usual conflicts we find in modern literature, that’s for sure.

And after Bunyan finishes Christian’s story, about halfway through the book, he then tells the story of Christian’s wife and kids deciding to follow him. Which gets to be sort of a commentary on a commentary.

There are pages that bow under tedium, mostly where various characters debate confusing points of doctrine, and Bunyan evidently never considered breaking the story up into chapters. It’s almost like a fever dream. The book was evidently conceived in prison, and perhaps started there. He spent twelve years locked up for heresy. Which, reading this, I can certainly believe. Not the heresy part, since I am a bit fuzzy on who believed what back when, but the stubbornness part.

Glad I read it, wouldn’t read it again, and can’t say as I would recommend it to the casual reader, though it very well may give comfort to those who agree with its theology.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Light In August – Faulkner

More On The Divine Comedy – Dante

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Stowe

 

Light In August – Faulkner

The introduction of my edition of Light in August, by William Faulkner, argues that this was his ‘Great American Novel.’ That it lives in the tradition of Beloved, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Go Tell It On The Mountain, and Huckleberry Finn. Well, maybe. The pivotal character in this book is a guy named Christmas, a violent, misogynistic, abuse survivor who believes, on not altogether overwhelming evidence, that he is African American. Many uses of the n word, I fear. But in each of the books listed above, there is an effort by the author to grapple with what America is, and what slavery has done, or is doing, to the idea of America, an effort I just don’t see coalescing here.

Faulkner breaks out his usual bag of tricks: confused, unreliable narration, uncertain points of view, shifting time and location, terrible crimes that rise to the level of terrible sin, all efforts to keep the reader guessing and hopping and solving the little puzzles thrown down in the story. But honestly, I think he pulled that all off best in The Sound And the Fury. Yes, it still feels ‘of a piece’ here, cohesive, holistic, whatever the word is I’m looking for, but ultimately, the result feels petty, not fully worth the effort.

The narration starts out with a girl, Lena, who sets off hunting the man who got her pregnant and fled. She’s sure he’ll be sending for her soon. In fact, the whole novel has a sense of journey, even spiritual journey, about it, though nobody seems to have much sense of the divine, not even the preachers. Lena kind of ties the whole book together, popping in here and there, mattering more or less to various other characters.

It’s all slickly done, and resolves in a way that feels satisfying enough. Maybe I was just waiting for that moment, as happens with As I Lay Dying, when the absurdity rises to humorous heights (I almost said risible, forgive me). We never quite get there, but certainly a big reason to read Faulkner is his use of grotesque characters, Gothic settings, and unique descriptions. Those all exist here as well. But I wouldn’t recommend starting your journey through Faulkner’s world with this book.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Short Stories – O. Henry

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Stowe

As I Lay Dying – Faulkner

Short Stories – O. Henry

I have the perception that O. Henry is one of those writers that everybody references and nobody reads, at least beyond “Gift of the Magi,” and maybe “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Well, I’ve read enough of his stories now (he published over 600, so I haven’t gotten to them all) that I would say he can be very good, indeed. I don’t like the casual racism which crops up here and there, so I want to warn the reader about that, but since he is widely known for his ‘twist’ endings, I thought I’d take in a few stories to see what I might think.

I’d have to say that what was once considered a ‘twist’ ending is nearly a fiction standard these days. Any contemporary story that doesn’t twist, as his stories generally did, is likely not to sell at all. Neil Gaiman relies heavily on such reversals, for instance. They are almost like turns in poetry. The reversals that O. Henry wrought often give the reader an entirely different way to look at the subject… or an insight into the characters.

He’s very good at characterization, and despite writing consistently short tales (I’d estimate his average length at under 3,000 words) he very often starts with a sort of background statement, which can go on half-a-page or more. “The Enchanted Profile,” for instance, begins: ‘There are few Caliphesses. Women are Scheherazades by birth, predilection, instinct and arrangement of the vocal cords.’ As you can tell, he loves the semi-provocative start. Atmosphere is key, and characterization the heart and soul of his art. In fact, the change of some character’s heart is often what leads to his twist endings. I don’t want to overstate this, he is just as likely to start ‘in media res,’ with no introduction to whoever he is talking about, and the reader has to grab his or her hat to keep up. “The Octopus Marooned,” for instance, starts: “‘A trust is its weakest point,’ said Jeff Peters. / ‘That,’ said I, ‘sounds like one of those unintelligible remarks such as, “why is a policeman?”‘”

In short, O. Henry had an almost infinite variety of ways to hook the reader into his stories. And he had such an easy, ‘we’re just telling a few tales here’ manner to his writing. The voice draws us along. It’s extremely distinctive. He loves strange words, weird observations, and off-beat settings. Nor do I think I’ve ever read anyone with a  better sense of pacing. There’s definitely a hierarchy of quality, some stories rising far about the rest, but how many writers is that not true of? He has much to commend him, despite his notable, even occasionally grating flaws.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Long Way Home – Penny

The Secret Agent – Conrad

Our Man In Havana – Greene

 

The Long Way Home – Penny

I hadn’t read any Chief Inspector Gamache mystery novels before The Long Way Home, but a friend recommended I try her work, so here we are. I admit I’m a bit stymied as to how to respond to this one. Louise Penny dots every i and crosses every t in terms of characterization, epiphanies (many, many epiphanies), plot twists, all of it. But I still was left a bit flat, and I can’t really say why. She does a great job of delivering the emotional punch, the settings… but it feels a bit contrived.

Ruth, the poet friend, is just too mean, for instance, without any evidence of why anyone would put up with her. Everyone insults each other. Maybe that’s a Canadian thing, but it doesn’t make me like these characters much. Maybe it’s simply that all the characters seem to know themselves too well. Nobody is an amateur at self-knowledge, here. And everyone is in the grips of some devastating past trauma that they must learn to deal with.

Gamache himself has all the terrible things he’s done in the past he has to come to grips with. And we make glacial progress on that, I suppose. Cara, who drives the plot, is ambivalent about Peter, who has disappeared, and that must all be carefully worked out. I guess that’s it: everything seems too carefully worked out. There’s nothing messy in this book. Everything is there for a reason, every bit of angst will be worked on, every character flaw has its day.

I do like the twist that no murder happens by page three, or whenever it is supposed to happen, right up front… in fact, I’m not going to tell you whether one ever occurs. That part of the plotting is the most original, and so the most satisfying. The reader really gets drawn along by the uncertainty there.

And I really don’t feel I have given Penny a fair chance; she is so skilled at what she does I do feel compelled to give her another chance. This IS a very competent mystery novel, after all. Everything that should be here, is here. There are twists, surprises, and shocks.

And isn’t one of the prime hopes of any author that their readers will be drawn to go read another in the series? I certainly feel I want to try another, here.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

The Underground Man – Ross Macdonald

The Secret Agent – Conrad

Our Man In Havana – Greene

 

Black Leopard Red Wolf – James

Black Leopard Red Wolf, by Marlon James, is all the rage these days. Neil Gaiman says it is set in a ‘dangerous, hallucinatory, ancient Africa.’ This is true. Louise Erdrich says it ‘begins like a fever dream.’ Also true. And if you want a wild, non-linear, violent, uncertain story, you might like this book a lot. It’s certainly garnering lots of excited press.

But I have a real problem with the constant brutality, including graphic scenes of child rape, violence towards women, hate, cruelty, on and on. And it just never stops. Yes, the hero is sort of a Schwarzenegger, generally only (but not entirely) slaughtering bad guys. So what?

The basic techniques of storytelling — emotional arcs, revelation of character, the hero having a clear goal and a source of conflict, are only sketchily represented, or missing altogether. Sorry, but at this point in my career I think that means the author has not mastered those techniques. Are they necessary? Not always, but mostly when they are missing, it drags the story down. In the right circumstances, it can create exactly what is represented above: a non-linear, wild tale where the reader never knows what is to come next, the danger is original and unexpected, and the pace is breakneck. But again, for me, to not have a discernible pattern removes some of the growing tension. ‘Oh, here’s another unexplained monster attacking for no reason we can know. Why am I supposed to care?’

You should know that I did not care for Game of Thrones. Again, I want a sympathetic hero to truly like any book. So if you loved GOT, I would expect many of my arguments will not apply to you, and you very well may love this book. Many people do. And that’s fine. It’s the difference of opinion that makes the horse race.

What I did most admire about this story was the depth and originality of the world-building. It feels like a fundamentally different world, with fundamentally different rules, from almost all western fiction. And I’m glad for that. As I implied, the pace is fast, things change a lot, and it’s a book built from a series of shorter stories/incidents. Your heart will pound as you read. But this is not a book for me.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Call of the Labyrinth, the latest novel in my Saga of Sinnesemota fantasy series, follows Rev and his fiancée Stara on a quest through a deadly jungle as they hunt the magical Labyrinth, hoping to reestablish peace in a time of war. You can find this rousing tale, as well as Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first novels in the series, on Amazon. Check them out.

Related blog posts:

Legends of the Condor Heroes – Jin Yong

The Broken Kingdoms – Jemison

Green Rider – Britain