Before now, I'd read one Bronte-sister novel: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I read it for a class, and I loved every second of it. But for one reason or another, this also-very-famous Bronte-sister novel had eluded me before now. Because it is famous, I had some vague idea of what it was going to be like before I started it: sweepingly romantic with dark, brooding Heathcliff brooding darkly on the moors. And I would of course develop a crush on Heathcliff and all of his dark, brooding ways. (What? Like you've never had a crush on a fictional character before?) But then I started reading and I realized that, uh, wow. I was wrong.
My Barnes & Noble Classics edition has a critical introduction by Daphne Merkin, and it says, "The first thing you will notice about Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights ... is that it is like no other novel ever written. It reads like the work of someone who had direct access to her unconscious -- or, as the New Agers might put it, was able to 'channel' her unconscious. Perhaps the most striking triumph of the novel is that although it is a very particular fever dream concocted by one very specific and overheated imagination, it manages somehow to take over and become your own fever dream (which is, in essence, what happens with all great novels), the exact contents of which are hard to recall once you wake up." I don't know about all of that, because I mostly just found it weirdly constructed and hard to imagine why this supposed great love was so great.
It's like this. Wuthering Heights is not told from the perspective of either of its main characters, nor in a third person omniscient voice. It actually begins with a male tenant meeting a very inhospitable Heathcliff, and then he gets sick, and then he gets the story of why Heathcliff is such a bastard from a servant. So yeah, the entire story is told to an annoying, kind of wimpy guy by a maid. I have issues with novels constructed around people talking too much, I guess. I always find this device false. I probably can't quote verbatim things I said five minutes ago, so I doubt that I'd be able to pontificate for pages and pages about something that happened years and years ago with detail and exact quotations. I'm just never able to buy stories told this way. And yes, I get that it lends an air of unreliability to the narrative, which might perhaps be intended, but I still think there are better ways to do this, so whatever. I'm not getting the fever dream thing, in any case.
What of the love story? Well, okay, so Heathcliff and Catherine were childhood sweethearts and all, but really, I didn't like either of them, so I didn't care if it didn't work out for them. I thought Catherine was kind of a self-centered bitch, and Heathcliff? Well, yes, he was dark and brooding, but less in a hot way and more in a total asshole way. It's like, listen dude, I understand that you're dark and brooding and really busy brooding darkly about your dark pain, or something, but do you really have to be such a dick about it? For fuck's sake, go have some ice cream and a nap, Sparky. Good lord.
Anyway, I was not all that impressed with this particular Bronte-sister novel, perhaps because I was disappointed about the fact that it was so different from my expectations, but there it is. And seriously? Heathcliff is the most overrated literary hottie of all time.
Published in 1732, Jonathan Swift's poem, "The Lady's Dressing Room" (full text) follows a man, Strephon, as he goes through the unoccupied room of a woman named Celia (which means that he's an 18th century medicine-cabinet-snoop) and discovers that, though lovely in public, in private she's pretty much a disgusting pig:
And first a dirty smock appeared,
Beneath the arm-pits well besmeared.
Strephon, the rogue, displayed it wide
And turned it round on every side.
On such a point few words are best,
And Strephon bids us guess the rest;
And swears how damnably the men lie
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.
Now listen while he next produces
The various combs for various uses,
Filled up with dirt so closely fixt,
No brush could force a way betwixt.
A paste of composition rare,
Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead and hair;
A forehead cloth with oil upon't
To smooth the wrinkles on her front.
John Osborne, the subject of a new biography by John Heilpern, has never been a household name on my side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they knew him well in England in the 1950's, when he and Kingsley Amis (father of our Martin) and Harold Pinter and many others bandied around London as The Angry Young Men, a close match to the Beat Generation writers in America, as well as the cafe-haunting Existentialists of Paris. But the fad of the Angry Young Men of London quickly fizzled out, and John Osborne's subsequent career deserves to be considered on its own terms.
His signature work is Look Back in Anger, which opened in 1956 and gave the "Angry Young Men" their name. It's the story of a fuming, flannel-shirt wearing London bloke named Jimmy who slaves away at a candy stand all day and plays hot trad jazz saxophone all night. He's married to a lively young woman, but he's too brutal and impulsive to keep her love or, ultimately, her respect. Which is okay with him, because he's more interested in her prim, conceited best friend, who drives him crazy much the same way Blanche DuBois drove Stanley Kowalski crazy in A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, the film version of this play shows Richard Burton at his most Brando-esque as the rambunctious Jimmy (it also features Claire Bloom, Philip Roth's future wife, ex-wife and harshest critic as Jimmy's romantic nemesis, Helena Charles).
Unlike some of his Beat Generation counterparts in America, John Osbourne chose not to continue to milk the "crazy youth" image, but instead turned to the story of an aging, sad music hall singer for his next hit play, The Entertainer. This can be enjoyed in a canonical film version starring Joan Plowright and the great Laurence Olivier, who turns this movie into such a deeply personal statement that many viewers will forget John Osborne (or anybody other than Laurence Olivier) had anything to do with it.
Osborne withdrew further from modern times with his next big success, Luther, a biographical study of the German founder of Protestant Christianity, which opened in London in 1961. Osborne clearly related to the iconoclastic Martin Luther, whose boiling sense of permanent rage recalls the cruel saxophone-wielding Jimmy of Look Back in Anger. (Luther can also be enjoyed in a good 1973 film starring Stacy Keach).
Unfortunately, in his private life John Osborne all too frequently resembled the growling mad, self-pitying male heroes who graced his most successful plays. John Osborne's literary career was a proud one, but those who know him well speak of a personality marred by fame, self-doubt and selfish impulsiveness.
John Osborne died in 1994. He was married five times, and was said to have had a cruel and terrible relationship with his daughter. In his personal decline, the angry Brit does resemble his flannel-shirt wearing American counterpart, Jack Kerouac. Neither were ready for the ravages of literary fame.
Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin in London, England on August 30, 1797 to remarkable parents. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist when feminism was almost unheard of, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. Her father, William Godwin, a well-known critic of the British government and the founder of modern philosophical anarchism, wrote An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793. Sadly, eleven days after Mary was born, her mother died of puerperal fever, leaving William Godwin to raise Mary and her older half-sister, Fanny.
Mary's father believed in the progressive type of education prescribed by philosophers like Rousseau, which emphasized experience over book-learning. He took Mary and Fanny on trips to different places and often invited writers, philosophers, and scientists to his house. These guests included Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, Humphry Davy, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. One night Mary got to hear Coleridge recite his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to a roomful of guests. Mary was writing her own stories by the time she was ten years old.
Along with several of my librarian dork friends, I once even had a Pride and Prejudice party with tea sandwiches and a viewing of our favorite parts of the excellent 1995 television version produced by BBC and A&E. My friend Melinda and I can recite passages verbatim from the book at each other. Very sad.
I was looking forward to the new movie version, anxious to see it, but skeptical whether it could ever live up to the classic 1995 mini-series, which starred Colin Firth. It didn't, of course. Melinda and I saw the new movie together, whispering to each other and giggling. Probably having such an intimate acquaintance with the story helped us both -- we only had to see Mr. Collins to start laughing.
Like Herman Melville, Doyle struggled his whole life to break free of the chains of his literary success. Doyle even famously killed off Sherlock Holmes, in the hope that readers would finally agree to read about other characters. The readers wouldn't, and Doyle eventually relented and brought the detective back to life.
Sherlock Holmes is a character you can approach from many angles. Too often he's a cliche -- a dog with a felt cap and a magnifying glass, or Peter Brady with a felt cap and a magnifying glass. In fact Holmes was a troubled loner, a Hamlet figure, playing his violin alone in his chambers at night, drug-addicted and society-deprived, and congenitally incapable of ever approaching the one woman he loves, the untouchable Irene Adler.
British novelist John Fowles died this weekend at his home in Lyme Regis, England at the age of 79.
The Magus was Fowles' definitive work, a tour de force in every sense. An earnest but vapid young man accepts an invitation for what appears to be a conventional teaching job on a small Greek island where an eccentric wealthy landowner holds court. Once there, the young man discovers himself imprisoned within an elaborate constructed world in which Greek myths come frighteningly alive and philosophical theories about mankind's Dionysian and Appolonian impulses are put to test.
"James said that she began exploring the connection between Shakespeare and Neville about six years ago when she deciphered what she believes is a code on the dedication page of Shakespeare's sonnets. The code revealed the name Henry Neville."Can we be sure? Will our Shakespeare-wasn't-Shakespeare hearts be broken again with the next earth-shattering discovery of Shakespeare's true identity? Well...
"The authors say Neville's life helps explain a switch in Shakespeare's plays, from histories and comedies to tragedies, at the turn of the 17th century. Neville was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1601 to 1603 for his role in the Essex rebellion (the attempt by the Earl of Essex and his supporters to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I), which the authors say accounts for the more tragic tone of Hamlet, written in 1601 and 1602, and the plays that follow."Oh yes. I believe the world is now collectively saying "Duh," completely unable to believe that nobody saw it before. Hamlet's a tragedy because its author was in prison. Obviously.
I hope that when they pick the next William Shakespeare, they can find someone whose life can explain the switch from the tragedies to the romances, because that's a real head-scratcher.
Seriously. I think it's time someone called Dan Brown.
Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.
It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.