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 Fran├žois 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.