Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fanny Hill by John Cleland

American readers may wonder what the fuss is about, but in Britain ‘fanny’ is a slang term not for one’s ‘ass’, but for one’s more intimate parts (if female). Cleland’s erotic classic - of 1748 - poses some problems both for arbiters of taste and for lexicographers. Did Cleland invent the word 'fanny' (the lexicographer Eric Partridge certainly thought so), or was he drawing on a usage that already existed? The first printed citation explicitly giving ‘fanny’ as a slang term is more than a hundred years later, so this gives no clue.

It may help to know that Fanny Hill was not originally Fanny Hill at all. The book was originally entitled Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and it was only in the later eighteenth century that the title was usurped by Fanny herself. ‘Hill’ is a pun - on the mons veneris or ‘mount’ of Venus. This rather supports the idea that the whole name – ‘Fanny Hill’ – was a sort of double pun. The fact that it originally did not appear in the title is also suggestive: Cleland was at pains to mollify the censor (he wrote most of the book while in the Fleet Gaol for debt, and after the book was published went back to prison, this time for obscenity) and deployed a whole vocabulary of euphemism and euphuism for the female genitals, including ‘the rose-lipped ouverture’, ‘the treasure of love’, ‘the pleasure-thirsty channel’ and ‘the etcetera’ – and for the male, ‘the pleasure pivot’, ‘the flesh brush’, ‘love’s true arrow’ and ‘the plenipotentiary instrument’.

The book exists today in a rather schizophrenic form. For the no-frills paperback reprint market it is Fanny Hill. For the ‘classics’ market, with scholarly introductions and notes, it is Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. Fanny is both saucy harlot and demimondaine. We are left to ourselves to decide whether Cleland’s novel is an unpretentious slice of porn or a canonical eighteenth-century novel alongside Tom Jones and Humphrey Clinker.

Cleland, John: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (introduction and notes by Peter Sabor, 1985)
Epstein, William Henry: John Cleland: Images of a Life (1975)
Green, Jonathon: ‘Dating Slang on “Historical Principles”’, Revue d’Études Françaises, No. 11 (2006)

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

'Catch-22’ has passed into the language as a description of the impossible bind:

Yossarian looked at him soberly and tried another approach. ‘Is Orr crazy?’
‘He sure is,’ Doc Daneeka said.
‘Can you ground him?’
‘I sure can. But first he has to ask me to. That’s part of the rule.’ [...]
‘And then you can ground him?’ Yossarian asked.
‘No. Then I can’t ground him.’
‘You mean there’s a catch?’
‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doe Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’

Orr is crazy, and can be grounded, but if he asks to be grounded he is sane - and he can only be grounded if he asks. Joseph Heller complained that the phrase ‘a Catch-22 situation’ was often used by people who did not seem to understand what it meant. Given the mental contortions of the catch, this is not surprising.

But it could have been Catch-18. This was Heller’s original title - and his title throughout all the long years of composition, from 1953 to 1961. However, just before the book was published Leon Uris produced his novel Mila 18. Heller’s publishers, Simon and Schuster, thought two books with ‘18’ in the title in one year was one book too many, and suggested a change. Heller was distraught (‘I thought 18 was the only number’ he said in an interview) and there began a long period of numerical agonizing in which numbers such as 11 and 14 were considered and rejected. Finally Robert Gottlieb at Simon and Schuster suggested 22, which Heller approved as a more significant number, reflecting the theme of doubling: Yossarian bombs Ferrara twice, Giuseppe sees everything twice, all Yossarian can say to the dying Snowden is ‘There, there’, and to comfort his mistress, ‘Please, please’ – and Major Major is actually Major Major Major Major. As Yossarian comments of the Catch, ‘There was an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that was graceful and shocking, like good modern art…’

Greenfeld, Josh: ’22 was Funnier than 14’, New York Times Review of Books, March 3 1968
Nagel, James, ed.: Critical Essays on Catch-22 (Dickenson, 1972)
Sorkin, Adam J, ed.: Conversations with Joseph Heller (University Press of Mississippi, 1993)
JP Stern, ‘War and the Comic Muse: The Good Soldier Schweik and Catch-22’, Comparative Literature, 20 (1968)

Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days, as a title, is simple, descriptive and enticing. As with any title that works superbly well, it has generated a huge number of parodies, puns and spin-offs. A short sample includes: Around the World in Eighty Ways (film), Around the World in Eighty Dreams (TV series), Around the World in Eighteen Days (film), Around the World in Eighty Dates (book), Around the World in Ninety Minutes (documentary), Around the World in 18 Minutes (film), The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze (film), Around the World in Eighty Treasures (TV series) and The Simpsons: Around the World in Eighty D’Ohs. And this is only scratching the surface. Of course, it all began with Jules Verne, and his Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours. Or did it?

Several theories have been propounded for the origin of Le Tour du monde. Verne himself claimed that the idea was sparked in 1871 when he read a newspaper article about a Thomas Cook round-the-world tour package. But there is one man whose career so closely parallels the fictional Phileas Fogg that it would be rash to ignore him: an eccentric American railroad magnate called George Francis Train.

Born in 1829, Train made his fortune in opium trading and transportation (a nice mixture) and in 1869 began campaigning for the US presidency with the rather unmelodious slogan of ‘Get aboard the express train of George Francis Train!’ In the middle of his campaign, ‘Citizen Train’ announced that he would make a trip around the world in eighty days or less. This might have been a publicity stunt - perhaps he wanted to advertise his new railway and the wonders of super-rapid opium-fuelled transportation - but whatever his motives, he started from New York in late July 1870, taking the Union Pacific Railroad to California, and on August 1 shipped on board the Great Republic bound for Yokohama. From there he sailed to Hong Kong, then Singapore, the Suez Canal, and Marseilles. In Lyons his luck ran out and he was thrown into prison. After appealing to the international media for help, Train was released, but not before 13 days of his precious 80 had been wasted. He hot-footed it to Liverpool, where he boarded the steamer Abyssinia for New York, and arrived finally in late December, having missed his deadline by at least two months. He claimed he had only taken the stipulated 80 days; no-one seemed to be bothered enough to count them. His presidential hopes were soon dashed. The 1872 election was won in a landslide by Ulysses S Grant.

And there the matter might have rested, except for Jules Verne. Verne was already a highly successful writer, having produced several of the Voyages Extraordinaires series that included A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But he needed a new idea. In late 1870 and early 1871 news of Train’s exploits was arriving in France. Verne, who may have seen the Thomas Cook advertisement but had not yet made the additional conceptual leap from the idea of a leisurely sightseeing trip to a race against time, very probably saw - the coincidences are surely suggestive - the news about Train, and the 80-day limit. He quickly dashed off the tale of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout and sold the idea as a serial to Le Temps, who published it in daily instalments from late 1872.

Verne never acknowledged Train as the inspiration for his book. Train lived on until 1904, and made three more round-the-world trips, beating his record each time, finally achieving 60 days flat. He did not take kindly to Verne’s fiction, and once told an English journalist: ‘Remember Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days? He stole my thunder. I’m Phileas Fogg. But I have beaten Fogg out of sight. What put the notion into my head? Well, I’m possessed of great psychic force.’

Costello, Peter: Jules Verne, Inventor of Science Fiction (Hodder and Stoughton, 1978)
Wallace, Irving: The Square Pegs (Hutchinson, 1958)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ivanhoe by Walter Scott

Ivanhoe is a rollicking tale of the deeds of metal-clad heroes and their fragrant paramours in the wilds of medieval Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. It was massively popular on publication in 1819 and was an important spur to the Victorian Middle-Ages craze: one of its characters was Robin Hood, whose mythos Scott did much to develop. The name Ivanhoe, however, was taken from a rather more sedate source — a town in Buckinghamshire called Ivinghoe, whose name appears in a traditional rhyme (‘Tring, Wing and Ivinghoe/Three dirty villages all in a row/And never without a rogue or two/ And would you know the reason why?/Leighton Buzzard is hard by.’) Scott quoted the rhyme from memory in his introduction, but misspelled Ivinghoe as ‘Ivanhoe’. Scott also accidentally invented the name ‘Cedric’ in Ivanhoe, by misspelling the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Cerdic’. Ivanhoe, Ivinghoe; Cedric, Cerdic: was Scott dyslexic?

As a footnote, Mark Twain had a very strange take on Ivanhoe. He considered that it was responsible for the American Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi he says:

Sir Walter Scott [...] sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still. Not so forcefully as half a generation ago, perhaps, but still forcefully. There, the genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried. But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner — or Southron, according to Sir Walter's starchier way of phrasing it — would be wholly modern, in place of modern and mediaeval mixed, and the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is. It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made these gentlemen value these bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter.

Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition. The Southerner of the American Revolution owned slaves; so did the Southerner of the Civil War: but the former resembles the latter as an Englishman resembles a Frenchman. The change of character can be traced rather more easily to Sir Walter's influence than to that of any other thing or person.

Scott, Walter: Ivanhoe‎ (Oxford World’s Classics, notes by Ian Duncan, 1998)
Twain, Mark: Life on the Mississippi (1883)

Goldfinger by Ian Fleming

It began on a golf course.

In the 1950s, Ian Fleming’s regular golfing partner was a businessman called John Blackwell. One day, at the St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, Blackwell mentioned that his cousin’s husband was the architect Ernö Goldfinger. Fleming liked the name ‘Goldfinger’ and thought he might be able to use it: he was always on the look-out for new or unusual names, and had given several of his previous characters the names of real people (and in fact in the final text of Goldfinger he used John Blackwell’s name for a minor character, a ‘pleasant-spoken Import and Export merchant’).

Ernö Goldfinger was one of post-war Britain’s most prominent architects and designers. Prominent, and notorious. A Jewish-Hungarian émigré, he was one of the leaders of the so-called ‘Brutalist’[1] movement. Brutalism was essentially a love affair with unadorned cast concrete, and in Goldfinger’s case led to buildings such as the Daily Worker headquarters at Farringdon Rd (a building run by the British Communist party), and the severely sculptural residential high-rises of Balfron Tower and Trellick Tower in London. He was a highly flamboyant character with a love of fast cars, cigars and young women, and was thought by some to be rather a bully: there were stories that he was given to frog-marching uncooperative clients out of his offices. Such character traits, one might have thought, would have made him a hero in the eyes of the creator of James Bond. Instead he ended up as a villain.

The plot of Goldfinger is as follows: Auric (rather than Ernö) Goldfinger is a Russian agent working for the underground organization SMERSH. His mission is to capture the West’s gold stocks by robbing Fort Knox and exporting one billion dollars’ worth of bullion to the Soviet Union, so precipitating an economic crisis. His villainy does not end there: he loves gold to the point of insanity, prefers his women to be decorated all over in gold paint before he has sex with them, and at one point executes an unfaithful secretary by leaving her to languish in this paint until her blocked pores cause her to suffocate (actually an impossible method of execution, though the victim might eventually die of heatstroke). At one point there is a golf match between Bond and Auric Goldfinger (who cheats, being foreign), perhaps as a nod to the original moment of titular inspiration on the golf course. Goldfinger is a typical James Bond romp, full of sexually voracious females with silly names, joke thermonuclear warheads, flash gadgets and casual racism. Auric Goldfinger is assumed to be Jewish and is introduced as follows: ‘You won’t believe it, but he’s a Britisher. Domiciled in Nassau. You’d think he’d be a Jew from the name, but he doesn’t look it.’ So even if Goldfinger is not actually fingered as Jewish he is tainted by association.

Some time before publication the real Goldfinger got wind of the book’s impending appearance and asked his solicitors to contact Jonathan Cape, Fleming’s publisher, for an explanation. Jonathan Cape sent a pre-publication copy of the novel to Goldfinger so that he could check it for libel. Libel was not difficult to spot. Both the real and the fictional Goldfinger exhibited Communistic tendencies (Ernö was a lifelong Marxist and had designed the Daily Worker building); in both cases there was the Jewish connection; a third similarity was a love of fast cars. Driving while a Jewish Communist was not, of course, a crime, or libellous in itself, but the fact that the fictional Goldfinger was also a murdering traitorous pervert was enough to give Ernö a good case for a libel suit if he so chose. He decided to sue.

Jonathan Cape behaved as sensible publishers do. They soothed the architect and suggested a number of concessions. They would not go as far as removing Goldfinger’s name from the jacket, but they would make sure that whenever it was mentioned in the text of the book it would be in the full form ‘Auric Goldfinger’, thus detaching the villain from his nominal model. There would also be the standard disclaimer at the front of the book: ‘The characters in this book are all fictional and no reference is intended to any person, alive or dead.’ Ernö would be sent six copies of the novel with the author’s compliments, and the publishers would pay all costs of the legal action incurred so far. Rather generously, Ernö agreed, and took no further action.

Fleming, however, was not pleased. It was a clash of two egos of rather similar size and shape. Fleming (also a womanizer, fast-car lover, occasional bully[2], etc.) considered getting his revenge by renaming the villain ‘Goldprick’ and inserting a slip into all the books explaining why this had had to be done: eventually he cooled off and the book went to press with the provisos Goldfinger’s solicitors had stipulated.

Fleming might have taken comfort from the fact that the huge success of the book and later the 1964 film produced some minor inconveniences for Ernö in later years. As Nigel Warburton reports in his biography of Goldfinger, the architect was often called late at night by people singing the song from the film (‘Gold... FINGer...’) or impersonating Sean Connery. Finally he began to enjoy his alter ego’s notoriety. He never had to repeat his name at parties. And in his office he kept prominently displayed one of his free first-edition copies of the novel.

Oddly enough Ernö Goldfinger inspired another literary creation. This time the book concerned did not bear his name but drew inspiration from his career. It was JG Ballard’s High Rise of 1975, which was almost certainly instigated by the furore associated with Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower, a building completed a couple of years earlier. Trellick Tower was the most notorious of Britain’s high-rise residential blocks, and was given the tabloid nickname ‘The Tower of Terror’. The particular scale of Trellick Tower – the tallest of the Goldfinger buildings at thirty-one storeys – made it a symbolic scapegoat for all the perceived disadvantages of high-rise living: anonymity, lack of surveillance, multiple escape routes for criminals. In Ballard’s High Rise a tower block erected with the Le Corbusian ideals of a ‘machine made for living’ descends into anarchy as the inhabitants first retreat from one another, and then, as social conditions worsen, emerge with rudimentary weapons to shed one another’s blood. The high-rise dwelling becomes, as Ballard put it, ‘an environment built not for man, but for man’s absence’. As far as the real Trellick Tower was concerned, most of its problems with crime and drug-dealing had cleared up by the late 1980s, and by the turn of the century flats in the Tower were among the most sought-after in London: two-bedroom flats there now sell for £422,000 (2009 prices), and it is now a Grade II star listed building, which means it can never be demolished. It is certainly the best-known Brutalist high-rise in Britain, and among the most famous in Europe. High Rise, then, like many of Ballard’s other apocalypses (The Drowned World, The Burning World) seem, with the advantage of hindsight, more valuable as expressions of Ballard’s literary psychology than as social commentary or ‘prophecy’ in any conventional sense.

But the fact that Ballard attached himself to Ernö Goldfinger was a strange coincidence. What was it about this man? Goldfinger tended to accrue, as if by magnetism, a completely undeserved reputation for villainy.

[1] Goldfinger always denied that he had anything to do with the ‘Brutalist’ movement, which is not in itself surprising: the label was originally pejorative.
[2] Fleming’s wife Ann once wrote to him: ‘It's very lonely not to be beaten and shouted at every five minutes.’

Fleming, Ian: Goldfinger (Jonathan Cape, 1959)
Warburton, Nigel: Ernö Goldfinger, The Life of an Architect (Routledge, 2004)
Gasiorek, Andrzej: J.G. Ballard‎ (2005)

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan

Massage? Shouldn’t that be ‘message’? Well, yes, it should. When the book came back from the typesetter there was a misprint in the title. According to his son Eric, McLuhan took one look at it and exclaimed, ‘Leave it alone! It's great, and right on target!’.

It was a typical McLuhan strategy. The phrase ‘the medium is the message’ – coined by McLuhan in the early 60s and denoting the way new media such as film and television had by their very nature begun to manipulate the way ideas were conceived and received - was already a cliché by the time the book came out in 1967, and McLuhan must have welcomed the chance to ring the changes on it. As Eric writes on the Marshall McLuhan website: ‘Now there are possible four readings for the last word of the title, all of them accurate: "Message" and "Mess Age," "Massage" and "Mass Age."’

Never just a stuffy theorist, McLuhan was a precursor of maverick cultural critics like Camille Paglia or Slavoj Zizek, and The Medium is the Massage, far from being a dry work on communications theory, is a riot of images, jumbled typefaces, blank and black pages, cartoons, prophetic maxims and scholarly jokes. It’s part photo essay, part harangue, part spoof. It's never boring, which given its subject – communications theory – is quite an achievement.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Miss Lonelyhearts Nathanael West

DISCUSSED: Humble Pleas for Moral Advice, Lightly Hard-boiled Surfaces, The Extension of Dada-Drunk Sophistication, Antagonist Editors Named Shrike, Cults, Idiomatic Violence, Unsympathetic Novels about Sympathy, Elevator Shafts, Desert Landscapes Littered with Arbitrary Architectural Monstrosities,The Inadvertent Death of Retail Clerks, F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Fetal Position

Halfway through Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West’s eponymous protagonist blurts out:

Perhaps I can make you understand. Let’s start from the beginning. A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper. The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke. He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he’s tired of being a leg man. He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him. He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

The passage, so disconcertingly clean and direct that it could remind you of a Hollywood “treatment” (the mercenary form in which West would come to specialize, a few years later), perhaps represents the book West suspects he ought to have written, or the book he suspects his reader thinks he ought to have written. That’s to say, a coherently tragic narrative grounded, under an urbane, lightly hard-boiled surface, in comprehensible “values.” The story is the sort that might have been nicely handled by a novelist like Horace McCoy, whose They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? might be considered a temperamental cousin to West’s, with its metaphor of the dance marathon forming a lucid indictment of the failure of popular imagination to encompass the Great Depression’s dismantling of the American Dream.

Certainly this embodies a part of West’s intention. Lonelyhearts was inspired by access West was given to real letters written to a real advice columnist, and its setting, a persuasively scoured and desperate early-’30s Manhattan, is rendered with the scalpel-precision that was West’s prose standard. No doubt, one measure of Nathanael West’s singular value is as a uniquely placed historical witness, a bridge between literary eras. His was a sensibility that extended the Paris-expatriate, Dada-drunk sophistication of ’20s literary culture to the material and milieu of Steinbeck, Tom Kromer, Edward Dahlberg, Daniel Fuchs, and other 1930s writers (some explicitly tagged as “proletarian”)—that is, to poverty’s social depredations, with all the accompanying lowered sights, deluded daydreams, and susceptibility to cults, fads, and games of chance.

Yet hardly anything in this context prepares us as readers for the plunge into the nihilistic, hysterical, grotesque-poetic frieze that is the fifty-eight-page “novel” we know as Miss Lonelyhearts. For what that inadequate synopsis implies (“for the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values.…”) is an approach to depicting fictional characters that West couldn’t ratify: psychologically rounded, and capable of making and recognizing a traditional “mistake,” of making a hero’s progress through a typical plot, even if it is to be a tragic one.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe" The Black Cat " (Excerpt)

The Black Cat" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of The Saturday Evening Post. It is a study of the psychology of guilt, often paired in analysis with Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart".[1] In both, a murderer carefully conceals his crime and believes himself unassailable, but eventually breaks down and reveals himself, impelled by a nagging reminder of his guilt.

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, and is considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

He was born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second child of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. He had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe.[4] Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare's King Lear, a play the couple was performing in 1809.[5] His father abandoned their family in 1810,[6] and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia, who dealt in a variety of goods including tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves.[7] The Allans served as a foster family but never formally adopted Poe,[8] though they gave him the name "Edgar Allan Poe.

Kind Regards

Jim Clark
All rights are reserved on this video recording copyright JimClark 2009
Excerpt from "The Black Cat"................

With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase. It followed my footsteps with a pertinacity which it would be difficult to make the reader comprehend. Whenever I sat, it would crouch beneath my chair, or spring upon my knees, covering me with its loathsome caresses. If I arose to walk it would get between my feet and thus nearly throw me down, or, fastening its long and sharp claws in my dress, clamber, in this manner, to my breast. At such times, although I longed to destroy it with a blow, I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly - let me confess it at once - by absolute dread of the beast.

This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil - and yet I should be at a loss how otherwise to define it. I am almost ashamed to own - yes, even in this felon's cell, I am almost ashamed to own - that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimaeras it would be possible to conceive. My wife had called my attention, more than once, to the character of the mark of white hair, of which I have spoken, and which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one I had destroyed. The reader will remember that this mark, although large, had been originally very indefinite; but, by slow degrees - degrees nearly imperceptible, and which for a long time my Reason struggled to reject as fanciful - it had, at length, assumed a rigorous distinctness of outline. It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name - and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared - it was now, I say, the image of a hideous - of a ghastly thing - of the GALLOWS ! - oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime - of Agony and of Death !

And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast - whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed - a brute beast to work out for me - for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God - so much of insufferable wo! Alas! neither by day nor by night knew I the blessing of Rest any more! During the former the creature left me no moment alone; and, in the latter, I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight - an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off - incumbent eternally upon my heart !

Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates - the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.

Edgar Allan Poe " The Pit and the Pendulum" Chapter one

"The Pit and the Pendulum" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published in 1842. The story is about the torments endured by a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, though Poe skews historical facts. The narrator of the story is deemed guilty for an unnamed crime and put into a completely dark room. He passes out while trying to determine the size of the room. When he wakes up, he realizes there is a large, deep pit in the middle of the room. He loses consciousness again and awakens strapped on his back, unable to move more than his head. He soon realizes there is a large blade-like pendulum hanging above him, slowly getting closer to cutting through his chest. He finds a way to escape but the burning iron walls of his prison start to move and close in on him, pushing him closer and closer to falling into the pit.

Edgar Allan Poe (January 19, 1809 October 7, 1849) was an American writer, poet, editor and literary critic, and is considered part of the American Romantic Movement. Best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective-fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

He was born Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second child of actress Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe and actor David Poe, Jr. He had an elder brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, and a younger sister, Rosalie Poe.[4] Edgar may have been named after a character in William Shakespeare's King Lear, a play the couple was performing in 1809.[5] His father abandoned their family in 1810,[6] and his mother died a year later from consumption. Poe was then taken into the home of John Allan, a successful Scottish merchant in Richmond, Virginia, who dealt in a variety of goods including tobacco, cloth, wheat, tombstones, and slaves.[7] The Allans served as a foster family but never formally adopted Poe,[8] though they gave him the name "Edgar Allan Poe.

Kind Regards

Jim Clark
All rights are reserved on this video recording copyright Jim Clark 2009

The Pit and the Pendulum - Chapter one...............

WAS sick, sick unto death, with that long agony, and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence, the dread sentence of death, was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of REVOLUTION, perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel. This only for a brief period, for presently I heard no more. Yet, for a while, I saw, but with how terrible an exaggeration ! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white -- whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words -- and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness, of immovable resolution, of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was fate were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. I saw them fashion the syllables of my name, and I shuddered, because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment; and then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me: but then all at once there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill, as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery, while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help. And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness superened ; all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

Der Schweizerische Robinson was published in 1812 and tells the story of a pious Swiss family, a mother, father and four young sons, marooned on an island in the East Indies following a shipwreck. It is 600 pages long. The father, who narrates the book, uses the shipwreck as a pedagogical opportunity:

‘I believe,’ said Ernest [aged 12], ‘that mangoes grow on the sea-shore in marshy soil.’
‘You are partly right, my boy,’ I said, ‘but what you say applies to the black mango, not to the grey or red species, which bear small berries and do not grow so high.’

During their stay on the island the family undertake a destruction of its creatures. Among the species butchered are kangaroos, penguins, bears, giant land crabs, capybaras, apes, jackals, ostriches and turtles (the island contains the fauna of six continents). To keep themselves in comfort the family build a luxurious treehouse, plant and harvest corn, milk cows (rescued from the ship), boil up a whale, manufacture isinglass and cochineal, breed doves, gather honey, tap rubber and salt herrings. There is no difficulty of island life that their ingenuity and perseverance cannot resolve. By the end of the book they have created a Calvinist paradise in which nature has been subdued and largely exterminated, and where disease, sex and conflict (between humans) have been banished. In a final act of dour appropriation they christen their island ‘New Switzerland’.

The family is not, of course, called Robinson. They are never named. The title refers instead to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe of 1719 (see post 73). In an odd twist of literary fate the word ‘Robinson’ had taken on a life of its own in eighteenth-century European publishing, appearing in the titles of hundreds of adventure stories, mainly German and Dutch, but also French, Danish, Swiss, Swedish and Italian, known collectively as ‘Robinsonades’: Teutsche Robinson (1722), Americanische Robinson (1724), Nordische Robinson (1741), Hollandsche Robinson (1743), Dänische Robinson (1750), Walchersche Robinson (1752), Maldivschen Philosophen Robine (1753), Oude en Jongen Robinson (1753), Isländische Robinson (1755), Hartz-Robinson (1755), Robinson vom Berge Libonon (1755), Haagsche Robinson (1758), Robertson (sic) aux terres australes (1766), Steyerische Robinson (1791) and Böhmische Robinson (1796), among many others, all by different authors. ‘Robinson’ simply denoted an adventure tale. They didn't even have to take place on desert islands: there were Robinsonades set on mountain-tops, in jungles, among corsairs or in Turkish prisons. Many of the tales dispensed with the idea of the isolated adventurer altogether. There were even Robinsonades without ‘Robinson’ in the title.

Scholars first began to examine the Robinsonade phenomenon as early as the mid 1700s. Among the Robinsonade sub-groups identified by a French scholar were the robinsonnade gullivérienne, the robinsonnade en famille (such as the Swiss Family) and the robinsonnade de l’enfant. There were satirical Robinsonades, fantastical Robinsonades, Utopian Robinsonades and interplanetary Robinsonades. Life was a Robinsonade. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Robinsonade had mutated still further: Tarzan of the Apes, looked at in a certain way, is a Robinsonade (a robinsonnade de l’enfant?), and so is The Island of Doctor Moreau and Lord of the Flies (dystopian Robinsonades). In film and television, Lost in Space was obviously a Robinsonade (being based on the Swiss Family), and there were TV dramas such as Mountain Family Robinson and Swiss Family Robinson Lost in the Jungle.

But strangely, of the eighteenth and nineteenth century continental Robinsonades, only The Swiss Family Robinson took root when transplanted back onto English-speaking soil. Why, it is difficult to say. Perhaps the title had something to do with it. Originally, of course, it had been Der Schweizerische Robinson, and as such was indistinguishable from all the other Hollandsche Robinsons, Dänische Robinsons and Haagsche Robinsons. But the insertion of the word ‘Family’ in translation put it in a class of its own. ‘Family’ acted as a sort of pivot. Substitute anything for the ‘Swiss’ or the ‘Robinson’ and you get an infinite number of delightfully silly variations: Space Family Robinson, Beverly Hills Family Robinson, Swiss Family Treehouse, Swiss Family Orbison, Swiss Family Guy Robinson, Mouse Family Robinson, Swiss Family Mouse House, Stick Family Robinson, Swiss Bank Family Robinson, Swiss Cheese Family Robinson, and on and on (all real examples). The words ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ are close to nonsense in any case: tinkering with them reduces them to gibberish. Perhaps the reason only one Robinson made it back home was because it could be endlessly parodied.
Gove, Philip Babcock: The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction (Holland Press, 1961)

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud

Freud had something of a genius for titles. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life is startling and witty; Beyond the Pleasure Principle is intriguing and titillating. The Ego and the Id demonstrates the same mastery. With all the confidence of his forty clinical years, Freud introduced in his title a completely new term, the ‘Id’.

Although it wasn’t quite new. A couple of weeks previously, another book had appeared: The Book of the It. The author was the analyst George Groddeck. Both Freud and Groddeck used the same German term for their ‘Id’ and ‘It’ respectively: das Es. Freud was quite open about his debt: rather shockingly, he announced that The Ego and the Id was ‘under the sponsorship of Groddeck.’ It was shocking because Groddeck was regarded in some quarters as little better than a lunatic.

In the early years of psychoanalysis, practitioners were very anxious to establish their respectability as legitimate medical men. This was still an age of sexual puritanism, in which the sexual organs and sexual functions were not generally mentioned in polite conversation, and in which sexual categories as we now know them, or think we know them — homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestism, transsexualism — were still at an early and controversial stage of development. In this atmosphere, George Groddeck delivered a notorious speech to the congress of psychoanalysts at The Hague in 1920, opening his address with the words: ‘I am a wild analyst.’ This was somewhat crass. Analysts were regarded by the public as ‘wild’ already: it was exactly the image the profession wished to avoid. In his speech Groddeck went on to develop the idea that unconscious forces were the rulers of the human organism: even bodily diseases were caused by unconscious conflicts and neuroses. Groddeck moreover insisted on bringing his mistress to conferences and was the author of a risqué novel, The Seeker of Souls.

Nevertheless Freud liked Groddeck personally. He wrote to Max Eitingon that Groddeck was ‘a bit of a fantasist, but an original fellow who has the rare gift of good humour. I should not like to do without him.’ And Freud and Groddeck were in regular correspondence about their projects in 1923. Groddeck wrote to Freud, explaining his concept of the It, an idea partially derived from Nietzsche:

I am of the opinion that man is animated by the unknown. There is an It in him, something marvellous that regulates everything that he does and that happens to him. The sentence ‘I live’ is only partially correct; it expresses a little partial phenomenon of the fundamental truth: ‘Man is lived by the It.’

Groddeck sent Freud the chapters as he completed them, and Freud sent back letters of encouragement, also revealing the direction of his own thinking on the composition of the psyche. Taking Groddeck’s idea of the ‘It’, along with previous notions of the unconscious, as well as other speculations on the nature of personality, Freud was crafting the model that came to dominate psychiatry in the twentieth century. This was the tripartite model of Ego, Id and Superego, which he set out for the first time in the book The Ego and the Id.

It is important to look at the actual terms Freud used. In German the title of his book was Das Ich und das Es — ‘The I and the It’. It was only in the Standard Edition of Freud’s works in English that the latinate ‘Ego’, ‘Id’ and ‘Superego’ were used. Freud’s Id was therefore, as already mentioned, terminologically identical with Groddeck’s It in The Book of the It (in German Das Buch vom Es). But in analytical practice there were some important differences between It and Id. Groddeck saw the It as the dominant, though entirely unconscious, fount of personality: Freud’s Id was the ultimately subordinate repository of sex and death drives. For Freud, the Ego, although largely controlled by the Id, was in some senses an agency: it had limited powers of will, despite its unhappy position at the centre of pressures from the Id, the Superego, and the external world. For Groddeck, the psyche had no conscious agency at all. The unconscious It regulated everything.

Some time after the publication of both books, on the occasion of Groddeck’s sixtieth birthday, Freud sent him a letter with his best wishes, in a form which neatly encapsulated his debt. It was as if the elements of Freud’s psyche were wishing happy birthday to the single hidden force of Groddeck’s: ‘My Ego and my Id congratulate your It.’

Gay, Peter: Freud: A Life for our Time (Little, 2006)
Groddeck, Georg: The Book of the It (introduction by Lawrence Durrell, Vision Press, 1949)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Why Gulliver exactly? It’s now such a familiar name that we no longer ask. But it seems to have been carefully chosen. A ‘gull’ is slang for a fool or dupe, a trustful person, an ‘innocent abroad’; and to ‘gull’ someone is to trick or fleece them. The term was common in Swift’s day; the OED gives the earliest citation as 1594, from the work of Thomas Nashe: 'Liues there anie such slowe yce-braind beefe-witted gull.’ From 1748, closer to the publication-date of Gulliver’s Travels (in 1726), we have a citation in Smollett: ‘If I had been such a gull...I would without more ado tuck myself up.’ By the late nineteenth century the term was dying out. The OED’s last citation is from 1885 in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘He perceived by what...unmanly fear of ridicule he had been brought down to be the gull of this intriguer.’ Gulliver is not a fool, nor a dupe, but he is certainly trusting. And he is met everywhere with freaks and impossibilities which he is expected to take seriously - as are we, the readers. Gulliver may not be a fool but there is no shortage of fools in Gulliver.

The syllable ‘ver’ seems also to have been significant. It suggests truth (as in ‘veracity’), a point echoed in Swift’s foreword to Gulliver’s Travels, written under the pseudonym of Richard Sympson and itself an exercise in pseudo-deception: ‘There is an air of truth apparent through the whole; and indeed the author was so distinguished for his veracity, that it became a sort of proverb among his neighbours at Redriff, when any one affirmed a thing, to say, “it was as true as if Mr. Gulliver had spoken it.”’ Gulliver, then, as a name, opposes deception with truth. What better nomenclature for the hero of a work of satire, in which the satirist peddles monsters and exaggerations in the service of righteous and truth-telling anger?

On a final note of pedantry: Gulliver’s Travels is not the title of the book at all. It was originally Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships.

Seronsy, Cecil C: ‘Some Proper Names in Gulliver’s Travels’, Notes and Queries 202 (1957), 471

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The title of the original hand-lettered book was Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. As is well known, it had its origin in stories told by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) to Alice Liddell and her two sisters in the early 1860s; particularly in a set of stories told on the afternoon of 4 July 1862, when they went on a boating trip on the Isis at Oxford.

Dodgson illustrated the hand-lettered book himself, and presented it to Alice in 1864. But by this time he was barely on speaking terms with Alice and her family: relations with the Liddells had suffered a mysterious rupture. One guess is that Dodgson offered Alice his hand in marriage, and the offer was not well received by the Liddells. Alice was only 11, of course. Possibly of greater importance was that she was the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College (where Dodgson was a Fellow). Alice’s mother was a social climber, and Dodgson was not a very good prospect.

Still, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was the fruit of those golden days on the Isis: and it was so well liked by the friends Dodgson showed it to that he determined to have it properly published, with proper illustrations. He decided on John Tenniel as the illustrator – thus bringing to being the most famous marriage of author and illustrator in the history of literature – any other candidates?

However, he worried that the title Alice’s Adventures Under Ground might be a little too prosaic for the published version (he even joked that readers might guess it had something to do with mining). Accordingly he wrote on 10 June 1864 to a friend, Tom Taylor, for advice. He enclosed several titular possibilities in his letter, including Alice Among the Elves, Alice Among the Goblins, Alice’s Hour in Elfland, Alice’s Hour in Wonderland, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Taylor picked the latter, and Dodgson concurred. Of the possibilities, it stands out as the superior choice, but in rather a poor field. The original title – Alice’s Adventures Under Ground – is easily better, with its mythic connotations and its modern sense of a parallel social reality.

Taylor went on to be editor of Punch and a minor member of the Victorian literati. He had one other claim to fame: he was the author of a play called Our American Cousin. This was the play being performed when Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

Brown, Sally: The Original Alice (1997)
Gardner, Martin: The Annotated Alice (1970)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Robinson Crusoe was inspired, as is well known, by the travails of Alexander Selkirk, marooned on the island of Más Atierra in the Pacific Juan Fernandez group in 1704. Selkirk got into an argument with the captain of his ship and it was decided, it seems by mutual agreement, that it might be best just to stop and let him off. He survived on the island for four years, and on his return to civilization his story became famous. Defoe took what was already a very well known story and raised it from the plane of the famous to the plane of the immortal.

But this doesn’t explain the title. The actual name ‘Crusoe’ very probably came from Timothy Cruso, a schoolfellow of Defoe’s and a friend in later life. Cruso, like Defoe, was a Dissenter: in fact he was a dissenting minister in the church of the Crutched Friars, London, and the author of God the Guide of Youth (1695). Members of the Dissenting or Nonconforming churches (ie Christian believers without the Anglican faith) were denied a university education or a civil or military career. The History of Dissenters gives a short character-sketch of Cruso:

While his popular talents were crowned with great success, his amiable disposition and conduct endeared him not only to his own family but also to a very large circle of valuable friends. But the heavenly treasure was deposited in an earthen vessel, and his soul, like that of Watts, perhaps also of Paul, and some other distinguished men, was not well lodged; for his body was contemptible in its appearance, and frail in its texture. Exhausted therefore by the constant studies and hard labour which his indefatigable mind, ever eager to increase both his knowledge and his usefulness, imposed upon the feeble frame, he sunk under his work in the prime of life, and died on the twenty-sixth day of November, in the year one thousand six hundred and ninety-seven, when only forty-one years of age.

Robinson Crusoe is of course a highly theological work, representing one man’s dialogue with the Almighty shorn of any institutional trappings, a tale of survival through personal resourcefulness and faith. There a strong dissenting theme, therefore, in Robinson Crusoe. It seems very likely that Defoe’s use of his friend’s name was intended not only as a personal tribute but as a codified sign of support for Nonconformism.

Bogue, David, and Bennett, James: History of Dissenters, from the Revolution in 1688, to the Year 1808‎ (1809)
Backscheider, Paula R: Daniel Defoe: His Life‎ (1992)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is apparently the temperature at which paper spontaneously catches fire and burns. It was used by Bradbury as the title of his dystopian novel about a society in which reading is illegal.

The concept began life in a series of short stories on the theme of book-burning, including ‘Bright Phoenix’ and ‘Bonfire’, and developed into a 1951 novella ‘The Fireman’, about a municipal employee paid to burn books, before finding final form in Fahrenheit 451.

But Bradbury said that another short story, ‘The Pedestrian’ (1950), was also an important staging-post on the way to Fahrenheit 451. It was based on a real incident. Bradbury and a friend were taking an after-dinner walk when they were stopped and questioned by police. Indignant, Bradbury wrote a story about a future in which policemen arrest pedestrians instead of protecting them; this finds obvious parallels in a story about a future in which firemen start fires instead of stopping them. An evening stroll thus led to a critique of McCarthyist America. Bradbury later said: ‘When the wind is right, a faint odour of kerosene is exhaled from Senator McCarthy.’

This still doesn’t quite explain the title, though. Perhaps Bradbury had been reading a precursor to the Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper By Jens Borch (2001). This states:

The ignition temperature of paper is about 450 degrees C, but it is somewhat dependent upon the paper quality. The ignition temperature is 450 degrees C for rayon fibers, 475 degrees C for cotton, and 550 degrees C for flame-resistant cotton (treated with N-methyl-dimethyl-phosphonopropionamide). From the data published the ignition temperature of paper treated with fire retardants seems to be about 100 degrees C higher than that of an untreated sample.

What seems to have happened is that Bradbury mixed up his Fahrenheit with his Celsius. 450 degrees C is correct for paper – only one off from 451 – but this is Celsius (or Centigrade), not Fahrenheit. The equivalent in Fahrenheit would be about 843 degrees. The famous formulation ‘Fahrenheit 451: The Temperature at which Book Paper Catches Fire, and Burns’, should perhaps be changed: I would suggest something such as: ‘Fahrenheit 843: The Approximate Temperature at which Rayon Fiber Untreated with N-methyl-dimethyl-phosphonopropionamide Catches Fire, and Burns’.

Bradbury, Ray: Match to Flame: The Fictional Paths to Fahrenheit 451 (2006)
Borch, Jens: Handbook of Physical Testing of Paper (2001)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ulyssis By James Joyce[0])

Friday, May 8, 2009

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Nathanael West’s harrowing novel of life in 1930s New York is about a young man who poses as the female writer of an agony column. The pivotal moment in its creation occurred in 1929, while West was working as an assistant manager at the Kenmore Hall Hotel on East 23rd Street, New York. One night in March, West’s friend, the satirist SJ Perelman, dropped by and asked West if he would care to come along to Siegel’s, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, where he was going to meet a friend who wrote an agony column for the Brooklyn Eagle under the name of ‘Susan Chester’. ‘Susan’ had said that she had some readers’ letters that Perelman might be able to use as comic material. West agreed, and they all read the letters over dinner. It soon became clear that the letters were not really suitable for Perelman: they were full of tragic tales of unwanted pregnancies, hopeless love, tubercular husbands and dead children, and were signed with pseudonyms such as ‘Despairing’, ‘Down-hearted wife’ or ‘Broad Shoulders’. But they were a revelation to West. Deeply moved by the simplicity of the appeals for help, he took the bundle of letters back to the hotel with him and for the next few weeks studied them. He read aloud them to friends, who reported that, uncharacteristically, he seemed to be experiencing strong empathy with these toilers: he was, one reported, ‘terribly...hurt by them.’

At the same time West received a promotion. In 1930 he moved from the Kenmore Hall Hotel to the position of full manager at the Sutton Club Hotel on East 56th Street. His friends now referred to him as ‘PN West, the great writer and bordello-keeper’ (the ‘P’ was for ‘Pep’, West’s nickname). In his capacity as manager he was free to allocate any of the empty rooms gratis to friends, many of whom happened to be struggling writers. As time went by the Sutton was occupied by, among others, the Perelmans, Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellmann, James T Farrell, Dashiell Hammett and Erskine Caldwell. The hotel underwent a transformation into a nexus of 1930s literary talent. West’s position as manager meant that he had full control of the hotel’s mail, and he and Lillian Hellmann began to entertain themselves by steaming open the letters of the guests. They found that the clientele led lives richer in grotesquerie and self-destructiveness even than the correspondents of the Brooklyn Eagle. Ex-movie extras were selling themselves to any takers, male or female; suicides were planned and executed, one person leaping from the hotel terrace through the glass ceiling of the dining room while dinner was in progress.

The two influences fused. West took the ‘Susan Chester’ lonely hearts letters and combined them with his secret knowledge of the inhabitants of the Sutton, and between 1930 and 1932 produced Miss Lonelyhearts. It is generally considered his finest work. Miss Lonelyhearts went beyond the practised cynicism of Dorothy Parker, Perelman and West’s other literary friends of the 1930s into an area of quite terrifying human degradation.

It is interesting to think that it would have never happened had it not been for the rather pernicious habit of reading other people’s letters.

Martin, Jay: Nathanael West (Secker and Warburg, 1971)

The Republic by Plato

If Plato could be put into a time machine and brought to the twenty-first century, he would find many things to surprise him. Electricity, votes for women, competitive hot-dog eating — and the title of his most famous work, the Republic. For a start, he would not understand it: it's Latin, not Greek. And if someone translated it for him, he would probably be rather astonished to find it attached to his book.

The book was titled in Greek Politeia, which referred to the polis, or city-state, and can be rendered ‘the state’, ‘affairs of the state’ or, more broadly, ‘the life of the people’. Foreign translations give some idea of how far the title of the Republic has strayed from its origins: it is Der Staat in German, De Staat in Dutch, Stat in Slovak, Ustava (‘Constitution’) in Czech and Valsts (‘the State’) in Latvian. The book was intended as a manual on the good governance of a particular type of Greek political unit. It explored the political models on offer at the time, rejected all of them, and came to one, single, surprising conclusion.

Of the available models, timarchy was judged to be the best of a bad bunch. This was the system currently prevailing in Sparta, in which a small class of landed warriors lived amidst a slave-population, the helots, subduing them by means of military dictatorship and athletics. Oligarchy, the next most desirable, was government by a wealthy minority of unelected bureaucrat-politicians. The next was democracy, in which there was government by popular demagogues. The lowest of all, tyranny, was a state in which one terribly unhappy man, ‘surrounded by boyfriends and girlfriends’, enacted the destruction of the state through his own personal moral degradation.

Socrates/Plato, having demolished the opposition, then described his ideal state. This was an entirely theoretical polity, one ruled by ‘Guardians’, or specially-trained philosopher-rulers. The Guardians, unelected and set apart from the rest of the population (the Workers) from birth, would be bred eugenically by means of ‘marriage festivals’ (in fact state-sponsored orgies, since marriage was not their main purpose, but acts of intercourse by the fittest individuals). They would receive philosophical training for fifty years before being allowed to emerge and govern. A sub-set of the Guardians were the Auxiliaries, who would exist to keep order and prosecute wars. In order to keep the Workers loyal, a founding myth (sometimes translated as a ‘noble lie’) would be deliberately fabricated, ‘the Myth of Er’.

The title of the Republic, then, is rather strange: Plato’s ideal state is about as far away from representative republican democracy as it is possible to get. The reason lies essentially in the very great swathes of time that have elapsed since it was first translated. In its first Latin translation the title was Respublica, a word similar in meaning to Plato’s Politeia, and signifying ‘public matters’ or ‘matters of state’. Our modern word ’republic’, meaning democratic government shorn of unelected bodies, evolved from the term respublica, and its evolution in meaning twisted the meaning of Plato’s title. The Republic used to be a good translation, but evolved into a mistranslation.

Plato: The Republic (translation, introduction and notes by HDP Lee, Penguin, 1955)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the blockbuster sensation of 1962. At first greeted with shocked incomprehension (‘a sick play for sick people’; ‘for dirty-minded females only’) it went on to win numerous major awards, transferred to Broadway, was made into a multi-Oscar-winning film and took Europe by storm (in Prague it was billed as Who’s Afraid of Franz Kafka?). As a study in matrimonial attrition it went deeper, was more savage and uncompromising than anything yet seen in the American theatre. ‘Total war’ is the formula George and Martha agree on in Act Two; and in Act Three, George, humiliated and angry, avails himself of the atomic option.

The title was a major part of the play’s success. It originated from 1954. Albee was in the habit of drinking at an establishment in Greenwich Village called ‘The College of Complexes’, and behind the bar was a large mirror on which patrons were free to scrawl messages in soap. One night he saw the legend ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ and it amused him. But it was not originally the title of anything: in the early stages of writing, the play was called Exorcism, and ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ was merely a line in the play. The line later moved to become the play’s subtitle, and then, at some point in the writing, with ‘Exorcism’ relegated to the third-act title (the first two acts are ‘Fun and Games’ and ‘Walpurgisnacht’) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the main title. Albee said that its meaning was ‘who’s afraid of the big, bad wolf, which means who’s afraid of living life without delusions?’

Strangely enough for a title with such a concrete starting-point, there was at least one other possible influence on it, in the work of James Thurber, an author whom Albee admired (and admires) greatly. Thurber was, to many, the greatest twentieth-century observer of marital conflict, particularly in his short stories: much of the dialogue of these pieces, in which contests are played out between domineering wives and resentful husbands, finds an echo in the private-language bitching of Albee’s play. There is ‘The Curb in the Sky’ (‘He always gets that line wrong’), ‘Am I Not Your Rosalind?’ (‘Shut up, George, and give me some more ice’) or ‘Mr Pendly and the Poindexter’ (‘What’s the matter; are you in a trance, or what?’). There is even a Thurber short story called ‘The Interview’ in which the protagonists are a husband and wife called George and Martha, and in which George, a writer, gets drunk and taunts Martha, in front of a guest, over their failing marriage. More pertinently as regards the title, in 1939 Thurber co-wrote, with Elliott Nugent, the play The Male Animal. Its main character is Tommy Turner, a college professor (like George) with an emasculating wife (like Martha) who is attracted to a younger football-player (like Nick, the boxer and biology professor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Turner wants to read to his class a letter by the anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti, but is warned by his wife that if he does so he risks being fired. He must make a decision either to stand up for himself or back down, and if he backs down he will very probably be cuckolded too. ‘I won't,’ he says. ‘I'm scared of those Neanderthal men. I'll talk about football.’ But then he sings: ‘Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf? The Big Bad Wolf?’ Staking all on one throw, he reads the letter and is supported not only by his faculty but, surprisingly, by the football team.

A second possible influence came from the work of Virginia Woolf herself. In around 1962 Albee wrote to Leonard Woolf to ask him if it would be all right to use his wife’s name as part of the title. Leonard Woolf said it would. Later, when the play transferred to the West End of London, Woolf went to see it with Peggy Ashcroft, and wrote to Albee: ‘We both enjoyed it immensely. It is so amusing and at the same time moving and is really about the important things in life. Nothing is rarer, at any rate, on the English stage. I wonder if you have ever read a short story which my wife wrote and is printed in A Haunted House? It is called “Lappin and Lapinova.” The details are quite dif­ferent but the theme is the same as that of the imaginary child in your play.’ Leonard Woolf was perhaps being tactful. ‘Lappin and Lapinova’ is about a married couple who, in the absence of children of their own, invent a secret fantasy-world. In it the husband is a rabbit and the wife a hare:

Thus when they came back from their honeymoon they possessed a private world [...] No one guessed that there was such a place, and that of course made it all the more amusing. It made them feel, more even than most young married couples, in league together against the rest of the world [...] Without that world, how, Rosalind wondered, that winter could she have lived at all?

But the breakdown of the marriage leads to a breakdown of the shared fantasy, and it is dealt a cruel coup de grâce by the husband:

‘Oh, Ernest, Ernest!’ she cried, starting up in her chair.
‘Well, what’s up now?’ he asked briskly, warming his hands at the fire.
‘It’s Lapinova...’ she faltered, glancing wildly at him out of her great startled eyes. ‘She’s gone, Ernest. I’ve lost her!’ [...]
‘Yes,’ he said at length. ‘Poor Lapinova...’ He straightened his tie at the looking-glass over the mantelpiece.
‘Caught in a trap,’ he said, ‘killed,’ and sat down and read the newspaper.
So that was the end of that marriage.

Albee claimed never to have read the short story.

Ardolino, Frank: ‘Nugent and Thurber's The Male Animal and Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Explicator (Spring 2003)
Bigsby, Christopher: Albee (Oliver & Boyd, 1969)
Gussow, Mel: Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (Oberon Books, 1999)
Woolf, Virginia: ‘Lappin and Lapinova’, A Haunted House and Other Stories (Harvest, 2002)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s parents, David and Elizabeth Poe, were both professional actors. Two of their friends, Noble Luke Usher and Harriet L’Estrange Usher, a husband and wife team, founded the Montreal Theatre in 1808, and appeared on stage with the Poes in the early 1800s. Edgar Allan Poe undoubtedly named his story about the ‘House of Usher’ – and its fall – after them. But why would Poe name a horror story after some friends of his parents? The answer may be linked to Poe’s preoccupation with premature death. The Ushers both died young, in 1814, in their twenties. Poe’s mother had also died young, aged 24, in 1811 (as Poe’s wife was to die young, also aged 24, in 1847). In the story, the twins Roderick and Madeline Usher die young, and their ‘House’ - their family line - is destroyed, the physical building dramatically collapsing into a brooding tarn (a mountain lake) at the end of the tale.

It seems likely that the choice of name in the title reflected Poe’s horror at something he knew well: the extinction of young life and the pain of being left behind.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.’
— Lolita

Lolita is one of those novels in which the protagonist-narrator is so coruscatingly brilliant that we are ready to forgive him almost anything. Twelve-year olds? Well, she did seduce him. And she’d already had that boy at summer camp. For prose this dazzling, this ardent, this clever...tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner...

But plagiarism?

This is the most recent charge against Nabokov’s notorious book, explored notably in Michael Maar’s The Two Lolitas (2005). The facts are these. In 1916 a German journalist, Heinz von Eschwege, writing under the name of Heinz von Lichberg, published a collection of stories called The Accursed Gioconda. Buried about half-way through the collection was a little story — only twelve pages long — called ‘Lolita’. It is a ghost story in a sub-Poe vein, perhaps with a dash of Thomas Mann thrown in. The narrator, a student living in Southern Germany, stays at a hotel and meets the daughter of the household, Lolita, a young girl (he does not say how young, but ‘by our northern standards she was terribly young‘), and is smitten by an unholy lust. One night his dirty young man’s dreams come true:

Lolita sat on my balcony and sang softly, as she often did. But this time she came to me with halting steps on the landing, the guitar discarded precipitously onto the floor. And while her eyes sought out the image of the flickering moon in the water, like a pleading child she flung her trembling little arms around my neck, leaned her head on my chest, and began sobbing. There were tears in her eyes, but her sweet mouth was laughing. The miracle had happened. ‘You are so strong,' she whispered.

After a few weeks of passion (no details are given) the student discovers that Lolita has died in the night. Lolita’s father, who takes the news quite phlegmatically, reveals to the student that her death is the result of a family curse.

The story is short, silly and uninvolving. The book as a whole did not sell particularly well. But the similarities with Nabokov’s Lolita seem too many to discount. In Nabokov’s novel, the narrator, Humbert Humbert, who recounts his ‘Confession of a White Widowed Male’ while in prison for murder, tells how, having recently arrived in the USA from France, he stays at a small boarding-house in a small town and is smitten with unholy lust for the landlady’s 12-year-old daughter, Lolita. He marries Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, who dies conveniently in a car accident leaving him free to ‘look after’ Lolita. Finally Lolita dies (a few weeks after giving birth, though not to his child) and he kills her lover, Quilty.

The main similarities of plot and construction, then, are these: both have a first person narrator who turns up at a boarding-house; Lolita in both cases is the daughter of the house; she ‘seduces’ him; sex and death are presented as different aspects of the same violence, or as cause and effect; and finally the book/story’s title is ‘Lolita’.

Of course, Nabokov would probably not have read those twelve pages in an obscure, untranslated book by a minor German writer, published when he (Nabokov) was 17 and still living in Russia. Or would he? Nabokov left Russia with his family in 1919, and after three years studying at Cambridge, settled in Berlin in 1922. He remained there for fifteen years — until 1937 — married there, had a son, wrote several novels, and made his pre-Lolita reputation. These were fifteen years in which von Lichberg was a fellow Berliner, even living in the same part of Berlin. The book was still in the shops, and Nabokov spoke German quite adequately. Lichberg, meanwhile, was becoming quite prominent as a public figure. He was one of the commentators in a well-known German newsreel of 1933, on the occasion of the torchlight parade celebrating Hitler’s accession to the Reichs-Chancellorship. After serving in the military police of the Abwehr in Poland during the Second World War, von Lichberg retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and died in 1951.

What can we make of the similarities between the two stories? Coincidence? Theft? Unconscious borrowing? Or deliberate quotation? This last of the four possible options is perhaps the most convincing. Nabokov was certainly not above sly references, nor a stranger to obscure ones. One of the subtlest involves the quotation given above: ‘Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did.’ These are among the opening words of the novel Lolita, in which Humbert explains that his thirst for nymphets is an amatory hangover from his childhood, when he had loved, although never to the point of consummation, a girl called Annabel Leigh:

She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion [...]
But that mimosa grove — the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since — until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.

But ‘Annabel Lee’ is the heroine of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe (whose own child-bride was 14 when he married her):

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love
I and my Annabel Lee.

So Lolita did have a precursor, one whom ‘he loved, one summer.’ But it was a literary precursor. Replace the word ‘loved’ with the word ‘read’ (not such a gigantic shift for Nabokov, for whom the pleasure of the text was the most exquisite of all) and we get, possibly, a truer reflection of the state of affairs. Nabokov’s nymphets were literary nymphets. ‘Annabel Leigh’ had her true origins in a work of the imagination. Was the inclusion of this ‘certain initial girl-child’ Nabokov’s way of telling us that the same was true of her sister Lolita, and that lurking behind Lolita was a Nazi called Heinz von Lichberg?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Jaws by Peter Benchley

Jaws was born out of a struggle between an author, an editor and a father. In 1964 Peter Benchley came across a New York Daily News article about the capture of an enormous 4,550-pound Great White shark by a fisherman at Long Island, and began writing the story that would become Jaws: initially, however, he wrote it as a comedy. Realizing half-way through that a comedy about shark attacks was never really going to work – it was, as he said in an interview, ‘a nearly perfect oxymoron’ – he switched into thriller mode. But on completion of his novel he was still minus a title. His working titles had included Great White and A Silence in the Water, but none of them seemed quite right. With publication looming, he appealed to his father, the humorist Nathaniel Benchley (himself the son of the Algonquin Round Tabler Robert Benchley), who came up with over 200 suggestions, including Wha's That Noshin' on My Laig? Unsurprisingly, the editor at Doubleday, Thomas Congdon, didn’t like any of them, and suggested The Jaws of Leviathan. Peter Benchley pointed out that Leviathan was a mammal, not a fish. Finally ‘Jaws’ turned into the only word editor and author could agree on. ‘At least it's short,’ Congdon commented. When Benchley broke the news to his father, his father asked, ‘What's it mean?’ ‘I have no idea,’ Benchley said. ‘But at least it's short.’

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

The legend of Hamlet dates to at least 400 years before Shakespeare. In around AD 1200 the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus (Saxo the Grammarian) wrote a History of the Danes which included the story of Amleth, a prince of Jutland. The tale was translated from its original Latin into French as part of François de Belleforest’s Histoires tragiques in 1570, and made its first appearance in English in 1608. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in around 1600, which means that the tale from Saxo would have been available to him only in French.

There was, however, another source, this time in English: a play, now lost, referred to in Shakespearian circles as the ‘ur-Hamlet’. It is often ascribed to Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy. We know about this early ‘Kydian’ Hamlet through several contemporary references.

These, then, one surviving text and one lost, were Shakespeare’s two known sources. He didn’t add a great deal in plot terms: Saxo/Belleforest has the murder by an uncle, the marriage to a submissive widow, the ghost (only in Belleforest), Hamlet feigning madness, the trip to England accompanied by two courtiers, the letter ordering Hamlet’s execution, the Ophelia-figure and the killing of a hidden spy. The main elements that appear only in Shakespeare’s version — but which themselves could have been taken from the ur-Hamlet — include the murder of Hamlet’s father in secret (in Saxo/Belleforest everybody knows about it), the use of a play ‘to catch the conscience of the king’, and the death of Hamlet in the melee that ends the play.

Such is the general state of scholarship on the sources for Hamlet. But an odd little fact exists. Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet — Hamnet, with an ‘n’. ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ are so close that Shakespeare must either have named his son after his play, or his play after his son. Hamnet was born in 1585, and Hamlet was written fifteen years later in 1600, and so the obvious conclusion is that it must have been the latter. However, complications immediately arise. Hamnet and his twin sister Judith were named after Shakespeare’s neighbours in Stratford, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. The spellings ‘Hamnet’ and ‘Hamlet’ seem to have been interchangeable in the records of the period: Hamnet Sadler was also recorded as ‘Hamlet’ Sadler.

Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, aged eleven, in 1596. This was four years before Shakespeare came to write Hamlet.

What does this mean? There are several theories concerning the influence of Hamnet on Hamlet. The first is that father and son were not particularly close (Shakespeare spent all of Hamnet’s life away in London) and that the story of the Danish prince was just a random subject for a revenge tragedy: Hamnet was not in his mind. A second theory has Shakespeare turning to the Hamlet legend as a way of exploring his grief over the death of his son. This idea has recently been given a new spin by the critic Stephen Greenblatt, who has pointed out that certain strange features of Hamlet — particularly Hamlet’s protracted indecision about whether or not to act on the ghost’s advice — exist because Shakespeare wished to draw attention to the changeover from Catholic to Protestant burial rites, a changeover he had recently witnessed at his son’s graveside.

A third theory, however, gives Shakespeare as the author — or co-author — of the ur-Hamlet. This has several points in its favour. The chief suspect for the author of an early version of a famous play must be, in the absence of any convincing evidence to the contrary, the author of the famous play himself. The contemporary references would be to a lost play by Shakespeare himself (and, possibly, A.N. Other – Kyd?) called Hamlet. The dates for Hamnet’s birth now fit. Hamnet was born in 1585, and the ur-Hamlet was written some time in the mid 1580s. In this scheme of things, the choice of the Hamlet-legend as a subject for a play would have been made at the same time as Shakespeare named Hamnet after his neighbour. It would have been a christening-present.

It is an intriguing possibility. Shakespeare was twenty-one years old in 1585, just at the beginning of his playwrighting career. If he did indeed write his first Hamlet in that year, in a spirit of celebration at the birth, and perhaps with a happy ending — Saxo and Belleforest both have happy endings — it would probably not have occurred to him that in fifteen years’ time he would feel compelled to re-visit the play with a new, darker understanding of the bond between a father and a son.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Is a theme developing?

‘Fear and Loathing’ was something of a cash-cow for Hunter Stockton Thompson. After the success of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - his rollercoaster ride across the West accompanied by his legal adviser and a carload of uppers, downers, screamers, laughers, 'a pint of raw ether', mescaline and nihilism - he went on to produce several other works bearing the ‘Fear and Loathing’ franchise. They included Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Fear and Loathing at the Watergate, Fear and Loathing in Limbo, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976, and Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl: No Rest for the Wretched.

Oddly enough the franchise seems – it’s just a theory – to have originated with Bertolt Brecht. Brecht’s play Furcht und Elend des Dritten Reiches (1938) translates as ‘Fear and Wretchedness of the Third Reich’. Note that one of the books above - Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl: No Rest for the Wretched – also includes the word ‘wretched’, the adjectival version of the German noun Elend, or wretchedness.

Could Thompson have encountered this play and been consciously or subconsciously influenced by it? Whatever the truth, he often used Nazism as a benchmark for the hilarious insanity of totalitarian power, and styled the USA ‘the Sixth Reich’. And when asked by his biographer to collaborate in a book called Rise of the Body Nazis, his response was typical: ‘Any book with Nazis in the title is my kind of book.’

Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton

Mr Chips, for readers not familiar with the 1934 novel by James Hilton – or with the 1939 movie starring Robert Donat - is the archetypal crusty-but-humane public school master. His subject is Latin, his theatre the Lower Fourth, and his finest moment comes during the First World War as the Germans are bombarding the school from a zeppelin. ‘You cannot judge the importance of things by the noise they make,’ he says to a classroom of boys as the drone of zeppelin engines gets nearer. ‘These things that have mattered for a thousand years are not going to be snuffed out because some stink-merchant invents a new kind of mischief.’

But it wasn’t originally Chips, but Chops. That in any case was the nickname of a master, so-called because of his impressive mutton-chop whiskers, at the Leys school in Cambridge attended by the young James Hilton. This is the probable origin of the name: the actual personality of Mr Chips came from a different source - another master, William Balgarnie. Hilton wrote: ‘Balgarnie was, I suppose, the chief model for my story. When I read so many other stories about public school life, I am struck by the fact that I suffered no such purgatory as their authors apparently did, and much of this miracle was due to Balgarnie.’

Hilton’s other great best-seller was Lost Horizon, which introduced the Himalayan paradise of Shangri-La: it and Goodbye Mr Chips were both novels about lost utopias, one set in an idealized public school, the other in a hidden mountain valley.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature notes tersely: ‘Hilton became a Hollywood scriptwriter and died in California.’

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald agonized over the title of his third novel. Among the candidates he rejected, and then lighted on again, and then re-rejected, in a series of letters and telegrams to his editor Max Perkins, were Trimalchio, Trimalchio’s Banquet, Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, The High-Bouncing Lover, The Great Gatsby, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, Gatsby, On the Road to West Egg, Incident at West Egg, Trimalchio in West Egg and several others. Perkins steered him gently towards The Great Gatsby, despite Fitzgerald’s doubts.

By the time The Great Gatsby was at the printers, Fitzgerald had changed his mind once again, asking Perkins for the book to be re-titled Under the Red, White and Blue — a reference to the American Dream so horribly mutilated in the book — and continued to swing back and forth, later writing to Perkins: ‘I feel Trimalchio might have been best after all’, but by then it was in the bookshops. The Great Gatsby it had to stay.

Why Gatsby? It is not a common name, and Fitzgerald was careful with names. One must recall that in the book Jay Gatsby is the hero’s assumed name, not his real name. His real name is James Gatz. (His father, Henry Gatz, makes an appearance in the book’s last few pages.) It seems likely that the significance of Gatsby and Gatz is in ‘gat’ — the gun which ends Gatsby’s life. Violent death lingers around Gatsby. As the book opens he is just back from the war in Europe, which he is reputed to have quite enjoyed. And if ‘Gatsby’ is significant, so is ‘Great’. In early drafts Fitzgerald had Gatsby refer to himself as ‘great’:

‘Jay Gatsby!’ he cried in a ringing voice, ‘There goes the great Jay Gatsby! That’s what people are going to say — wait and see.’

But despite his legendary parties Gatsby is not ‘great’. He is rootless, friendless, loveless and ultimately lifeless. Only three people come to his funeral. ‘Great’ is irony. Gatsby is a rich nobody.

Perhaps there is another echo in the ‘great’ of The Great Gatsby: that of ‘the Great American Novel’. This was an artefact Fitzgerald was consciously trying to construct, after the pattern of Melville or James, and to which he paid homage in one of his final choices of title, Under the Red, White and Blue. Fitzgerald thought of The Great Gatsby as his greatest work; many of his readers have agreed.

The Great Gatsby, then, can be seen as Fitzgerald’s attempt to represent his country in the medium of the novel. If this is so, it is a representation in which the dreams of greatness, wealth and success that form the nation’s myth are brutally dispelled. In an atmosphere of high-class squalor Gatsby is meaninglessly shot down. In calling his book The Great Gatsby it seems that Fitzgerald was gunning for America.