Monday, November 2, 2009

A trio of older fiction

In recent weeks I've knocked out some older fiction. Two came off Keith Law's always trusty KLAW 100. The other was by old favorite Christopher Morley. How old are they? The oldest is Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Lermontov wrote that in 1839. The copy I read was translated by Vladimir Nabokov. I knew I couldn't go wrong there. Nabokov's fluency in Russian and English is such that I knew he captured the story well. There were lots of footnotes where Nabokov explained where he might have gone with one word over another and he also voices some criticism about the simplicity of Lermontov's writing.

The story is about a solder named Pechorin who is really a nihilist. He doesn't quite care enough to be labeled amoral but he really does not consider others much when acting. The story is told in an interesting manner in that Pechorin is described in three points of views, including his own. The narrative style and the making of the "hero" being not very heroic sets this book apart. Lermontov does not describe people well which is sort of odd in a sense. Otherwise, the descriptions are good. Once again, another solid choice by Keith Law (this book will likely fall off his revised list this winter as it is at #100).

The other Law recommendation was G.H. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. Published in 1908, this is sort of an early spy thriller. It is very surreal, however. The main character, a poet named Gabriel Syme is recruited by Scotland Yard to try and stop an anarchist movement. He gets in a heated discussion with another poet who takes him to an underground anarchists meeting where Syme finagles his own election to the council of anarchists. Each member of the seven man council is named after a day of the week with Syme being Thursday. Sunday is the leader of the council and is a terrifying individual who invokes fear in everybody. Syme tries to thwart a plot by the group but discovers along the way that all the other members of the council are also undercover agents.

Crazy book but good. The anarchists aren't quite what you would expect nowadays and the "evil" is sort of the caliber of an A-Team episode. Nothing really terrible ever happens. There's definitely a lot of religious undertones to it which drives me nuts simply because I hate trying to derive meaning from novels. But again, definitely a good book.

The last, and most recent, of the trio is Morley's Parnassus on Wheels. Written in 1917, this is a cute, charming, funny story about a bold woman, Helen McGill, who buys a traveling bookstore. McGill, approaching age 40, cares for her older brother who is an author and lover of books. The brother travels a lot and doesn't do much around the farm when he is around and relies on McGill for quite a lot. The Parnassus comes to her home and McGill buys the bookstore in part for adventure and in part to prevent her brother from possibly doing so. The story is about her adventures traveling around the countryside selling books. A lot of the charm comes from the era. A woman conducting business! Traveling around the countryside alone! Abandoning her duties as a housewife! Egads!

You can actually listen to this book if you are illiterate like my good friend Transfixed Ingress. You can also read it online for free through Project Gutenberg.

Actually, all three books can be found on Project Gutenberg as can an audio version of The Man Who Was Thursday. Damn technology. Making books useless. Grrrr.....I will never get used to reading online. Can't do it.

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