Friday, March 18, 2016

Hanging Out With Pam and Em, part one

The reading gods strangely decreed that I should read two classics of Western literature one after the other. Although coming from different periods and written by authors of different countries, there are some interesting similarities about them. Both were written by men, featuring shall we say strong-willed female protagonists, and both broke new literary ground for the novel.

I read Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson because of a curious project a friend of mine has taken on. Because he feels that in his youth he avoided reading long books, in recent years he has tried to correct that, and occasionally succeeded in inveigling his friends into joining him in reading a series of what he calls "tomes". Different friends have responded to different lures, but through his offices I have finally tackled The Way We Live Now, Tristram Shandy, and, well, a fair amount of Humphrey Clinker. And now, Pamela. I thought I had attempted Pamela back in my college days, and was interested in completing the project. About halfway through, and somewhat to my dismay, I realized that it hadn't been Pamela at all, it had been Clarissa, Richardson's later and some say greater work. By that time, though, it was too late to back out.

Pamela, in case you have never heard of this 18th century bestseller, is a novel in letters showing the triumphant resistance (it's in the title folks, so that's no spoiler) of a very young servant girl to the unseemly advances of her late mistress's son, who has now become her master. At about the halfway point, though sensing what was coming, I was still hoping that our Pam would somehow find a musket and rid herself of her tiresome master and all his cohort, but sadly, this is not how it all works out. For me at least, Richardson manages to make the master so creepily loathsome that any redemption for him seems implausible, and unlike Mr. Darcy and all the other subsequent dark romantic heroes who finally become noble ones, Mr. B____ does not quite manage a personal transformation.

It is hard to read such a book absolutely straight, meaning as its original audience would have taken it. Pamela, in her triumph, took the world by storm. People not only read the book; there was merchandise.

As a form of the Cinderella story, and hence a prompt to upwardly mobile aspiration beyond its normal scope, it's no wonder that one Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wickedly called it "the  joy of the chambermaids of all nations."

According to the introduction to my old Signet edition by John M. Bullitt, Richardson was asked by two booksellers he knew to write a little book "for handsome girls who were obliged to go out to service ... how to avoid the snares that might be laid against their virtue." He happened to remember a true story which he had heard many years before, and so the character of Pamela sprang into life. It is safe to say that Pamela got away from him, as she does pretty much everyone in the book itself, by one means or another. Despite Richardson, she became psychologically real, a little like Pinocchio, or the Velveteen Rabbit. And the "little book" ended up being in excess of five hundred pages.

Pamela had a lot to get off her chest.

1750 portrati by Joseph Highmore

The letters and events are repetitious and go on too long. Dr.Johnson, according to Bullitt,wrote, "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your patience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself; but you must read him for the sentiment." My friend found one of the obstacles to be the way Richardson wrote dialogue in this book, which doesn't follow our modern conventions with quotation marks and distinct paragraphs, but I didn't find this a problem. I was actually rather fascinated by this alternate way that Richardson (or Pamela, since it's her letters we read)  rendered the way people speak to each other.

On the other hand, there is a tension and a nightmarish quality to the book that I found truly disturbing, while my friend found it all somewhat comical. Some of Mr. B___'s attempts on Pamela reminded him of some frat boys he had the opportunity to observe in action one summer as they schemed to assault some college girls' equivalent of virtue. Perhaps it's a difference between men and women, because Henry Fielding's short work Shamela takes Pamela to be too knowing by half. Although I don't mind the idea of parodying this work in theory, the first half of the book is about a guy holding a fifteen  year old girl completely in his power, and not really having to atone for it in the second, whatever Richardson himself may have thought about his redemption. And I found it worrying that throughout the book Pamela has absolute reliance on God to see her through. Worrying not for her, but for other girls in similar positions, who, equally virtuous, did not have such happy rewards, through no fault of their own.

My friend saw a sort of Gandhian figure in Pamela, which I found interesting. He mentioned someone saying that Gandhi couldn't have succeeded if he hadn't found in British values a line they wouldn't cross. Even Pamela's ability to faint at certain strategic moments reminded him of non-violent resistance. I'm not sure how well that strategy would have worked in real life for other Pamelas, though. As we know from the results of date rape drugs, men are not always put off by unconsciousness.

And I'm pretty sure that none of the administrators of the British Empire ever called Gandhi a "sauce-pot."

I'll take up the second book in part two.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

Today is the American launch of Rain Dogs, and if by some good fortune you happen to be in Manhattan this evening, you can actually go to a reading by the author at the Kinokuniya Bookstore. Details HERE.Yes, it's a little weird that a Northern Irish crime writer is doing a reading at a Japanese bookstore, but weird in a cool way. 

I say American launch because the British version of Rain Dogs actually came out a couple of months ago, and like so many of his fans, I couldn't be bothered to wait for the U.S. edition, so read it awhile ago. I don't see any huge harm in starting with this book, but the fact is that this is a series, and if possible, you should start with The Cold, Cold Ground and work your way forward. Although the books are dense with all sorts of allusions, half of which go right over my head, they are actually very fast reads, so it won't take you long. 

The series follows the adventures of Sean Duffy, Catholic police detective on a largely Protestant Northern Irish police force, through the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Rain Dogs brings us up to 1987. I'll save talking about the opening till last, but Duffy's personal life is yet again on the downspin, as Beth, the girl who's recently moved in with him, is very decisively moving out. Duffy, who can be morose at the best of times, isn't taking this too well. Although I won't say that he doesn't have time to worry about that, because, being Duffy, he manages to find some, most of it is quickly taken up with two cases--an irritating theft in a local hotel, which unfortunately involves some badly needed international investors, and a much more consequential death at Carrickfergus Castle (which may be more familiar to you in its alternate incarnation in the television production of The Game of Thrones). And it isn't long before the maddening possibility emerges that this may be a locked room mystery murder.

Maddening, because Duffy has already solved another locked room mystery during a previous case in In the Morning I'll Be Gone. And what are the odds that he'd run across another in his lifetime? Luckily for him, his junior partner, Alex Lawson (who McKinty completists will already know from the standalone Hidden River) has the math on that.

I happen to have read the opening of this book several times, because McKinty put up the beginning chapter and then chapters on his blog, and of course, I then started over when I read the book. In it Duffy once again manages to find himself in the presence of a celebrity of that time. In an alternate universe, it might actually have happened...

Here is McKinty reading that opening scene from the first chapter:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Way We Live Now, again

Far be it from me to turn this book review blog into a political commentary, but after just watching a segment on Lawrence O'Donnell on a shady Trump deal in Mexico, I just have to say that a Donald Trump was foreseen by Anthony Trollope in The Way We Live Now when he created the character Melmotte, who enters the political realm in England from a vague but somehow glamorous business past. Everyone is enamored with his wealth, but  he eventually learns that politics may be a step too far. He even has a shady railroad deal out in the American West, which proves to be more than questionable.

Read your classics, people. It could serve you in good stead in areas you least expect it...