“Les Misérables” (2012), or, the Problem of Putting an Epic (Musical) on Film: A Review

30 Dec

This season offered moviegoers adaptations of two sprawling, classic novels, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina. They represent two rather different solutions to the inevitable problems of selection and compression when one is dealing with such huge stories. Both novels unfold over some time in their fictional worlds and, likewise, take the attentive reader days, months, or even years to absorb fully. But movies have only two or three hours to lay out the essentials and take the reader from emotional point A to point B, or to points X, Y, and Z.

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In Les Misérables, the selection and compression of incident was given in advance by the adaptation for the stage, Boublil, Schönberg, and Kretzmer’s hugely successful musical. The undulating succession of emotional lows and peaks which Victor Hugo wrote are all here with a song to embody each. But is this a help to the film or too big a constraint on the pace of storytelling in a medium so different from the stage?  The stage is a place where scenes can be rotated into view or merely suggested with a backdrop or a few props, where action is limited by space, and where audience and actors agree that a character may stop, lift us up (with the strength of a Jean Valjean!), and symbolically carry us through the emotional journey of a song.  In a film, especially one that is avowedly “realistic” in its aim, the agreement is a bit different. The story is told scene by scene at more or less the pace of life; gaps in time–sometimes huge ones–serve the purpose of compression. The screenwriter’s and film director’s arts involve first selecting the scenes that will piece together the narrative and then setting them up (requiring again a whole universe of choices) for the camera to capture.

In Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables, the succession of songs seems to force a certain staccato pace on the events, as if they must be reeled out quickly before the song is over. Because this cuts against the grain of realism in what the eye sees, the film seems oddly rushed and busy, and star Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, mirrors this pace in his valiant, breathy singing.  Fantine’s fall from seamstress to prostitute, after selling her locket, hair, and teeth, apparently occurs all in the same day, in the space of a few desperate hours, while the song that brackets it takes mere minutes.  The cuts and scene changes that permit the illusion of the passage of time, in a fine version such as the 1998 nonmusical film (starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman), are not available here.

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Perhaps the frenetic pace of Fantine’s degradation conveys its tragedy, but as a viewer I was ironically grateful when the motion ceased while she sang “I dreamed a dream”–this song, both in the musical and in the film, bestowed the gift of time, room to contemplate all her character had undergone and would yet suffer.

Does this mean that a sung-through musical is not possible on film? Not at all. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy, is successful precisely because it never feels rushed or constrained by the songs; its dreamy quality matches song to action in a way that is awe-inspiring, justifying the admiration this film has received. For Les Mis, Hooper faced the doubly difficult task of adapting an adaptation, and he likely felt an obligation to include all the songs from the musical out of respect for its fans;  but this ready-made “screenplay,” in song form, short-circuited the possibility of making a musical better adapted to screen storytelling.

In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, the artistic tables are turned. Other films to this point have used conventional realism and judicious scene selection to solve the problem of compressing Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece. Wright, however, used the freedoms and conventions of the stage to make a brilliantly unconventional adaptation.

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Placing his actors on and off a theater stage allowed abrupt scene changes and mere suggestions of incidents that were not out of place but rather served the emotional impact of the story. When Vronsky’s horse suddenly and fatally tumbled off the stage, the viewer was jarred into real shock comparable to Anna’s, and “realism” of a very different sort was managed creatively (such a fall might indeed break a horse’s back or crush its rider). Yet it is not real–it’s a film, and we knew that “no animals were harmed in the making.” It’s an illusion achieved with cuts, special effects, and clever choices, part of the overarching illusion that the whole story can be recounted before the viewers’ eyes. Wright straddled film and theater, moving between them in a way that was surprising and constantly fresh, and a sophisticated commentary on both.

But Les Mis made a different set of choices: film realism and live singing. It has many strengths within those confines, not least of which is a complete realization of the stage musical. It fleshes out the action in epic proportions, to the point of floating a full-size galley (so it seems) for prisoner Jean Valjean to sweat and pull and sing into harbor. On this grand epic canvas, several other performances stood out and deserve mention. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Russell Crowe (Javert) found each of their character’s genuine center, and both sang very effectively. Anne will likely bring home many well-merited awards, probably an Oscar. Amanda Seyfried sang the aerial notes of Cosette with natural beauty and sincerity, and I would have wished more screen time for her.  Eddie Redmayne (Marius), hitherto best known for playing Jack in The Pillars of the Earth, was a bracing surprise, for his screen charisma and excellent singing. But the biggest and most welcome surprise was the cameo of Colm Wilkinson as M. Myriel, the saintly bishop whose gifts of candlesticks and forgiveness purchased Jean Valjean’s soul for God, launching the miracle of his new life and pilgrimage of faith. Wilkinson reminds us of the possible heights an actor can reach in portraying the soul of a great man. Hugh Jackman embraces this challenge wholeheartedly and seems to understand the moral choices that beset Jean Valjean as well as the prayerfulness with which he approached those choices. As it did for Wilkinson in the stage musical, Jackman’s best moment arrived in the pivotal song, “Bring Him Home.” And so Jackman fulfilled the role, especially its greater physical demands in the film. Was he a “revelation” in the role? Perhaps not. But like Jean Valjean, he proved himself utterly faithful to it.

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Breakage and Mending in “Anna Karenina” (2012): A review of the film by Joe Wright

4 Dec

Each new film adaptation of a classic must make choices about the images and symbols that will accompany its characters and help to reveal the significance of what happens to them. This is especially true when adapting a very long, profound, and polyphonic novel such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 

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Such choices by a director and by actors will forever color the impressions of a viewer encountering the story for the first time, even if she or he should go on to read the novel or watch other films of it.   For viewers who already know it, from its original or other renderings, a new adaptation is still an exciting opportunity to experience the work in a completely new way. In its boldness, Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina does not disappoint, with its abundant creativity and fresh emphasis, attributable undoubtedly as well to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

I’d like to highlight one motif that struck me as I watched (and listened–sounds are very important in this film too).  That motif is the alternation of breakage and (when possible) mending, mostly concerning the delicate relationships between people but extending to other things as well.  The viewer learns right away that the film will dance between scenes explicitly framed on stage as moving tableaux and “real” scenes, often introduced by spillage of the action over the proscenium or stretching out across an infinite rear stage. This gives the whole film an impressive trompe l’oeil quality, where one can’t always be sure what one is seeing. (The last scene of the film is a particular triumph of Wright’s  technique.) This method yields the first “breakages”–breaking the habitual rules governing the boundaries between stage and life, and breaking with our expectations of how period novels should be told on film.  In effect, the director announces immediately, “This will not be a well-behaved costume drama, so watch carefully!”  And indeed we do, because besides being sumptuous, it is paced quickly with sudden switches and interruptions.  Interestingly, chronological sequence is obeyed, giving the viewer at least one reliable anchor.  Perhaps, since Tolstoy inserted so much foreshadowing into his plot, there is little need to rearrange events to hint at the final outcome.

The early scenes visit the daily life and family strife of Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, played delightfully by Matthew Macfadyen, who was Keira Knightley’s Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, Macfadyen turns in an expansive, scene-stealing performance! His arrival at his office is a tuneful, surreal dance that made me wonder if this would be a musical throughout?  But in the first of many abrupt ruptures, the background melody of the characters’ lives is broken by the jangling of tragedy, the death of the train attendant, witnessed by Anna and blighting her initial passing encounter of Vronsky at the station.

Anna comes to visit her brother’s family in Moscow on a mission to mend the marriage whose breakage is threatened by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. Anna’s appeal to her sister-in-law to forgive her straying (though loving) husband works, and the breach is mended, despite Stiva’s inability to change his ways significantly.  Anna’s visit, however, gravely disrupts the life of Kitty, Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, who has hopes of marrying Count Vronsky, a young army officer. Seeing Anna so utterly captivate Vronsky at the ball where she imagined he would propose to her sends Kitty into despair and illness.  Before she learns the truth about Vronsky, Kitty turns down a proposal from the progressive farmer and landowner Levin, but that is not the final word for them. Wright’s film handles this counterpoint tale of Kitty and Levin’s redeeming love with extraordinary charm and sincerity. I won’t spoil it with more details, but it unfolds through fine, restrained performances by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson in particular captures Levin’s mysterious mixture of inner quiet and turmoil.

The rough outlines of Anna Karenina’s tragedy are well known, part of worldwide culture, but for any who are coming to her story for the first time, there are spoilers ahead…

As Anna, Keira Knightley must demonstrate layer upon layer of fragility as the character suffers a series of ruptures in all the major relationships of her life. Knightley does have such acting resources, which she showed in The Duchess (2008; a story with many parallels and some important divergences from the present one) and in the somber fable Never Let Me Go (2010).  But because the actress herself is so young, it is hard for her to show some of the nuances of Anna’s vulnerability and pain as she is compared to the young princess Vronsky’s mother intends for him. It is not only that she may be supplanted, but that she feels time slipping past her.  Despite her undeniable part in creating the fatal string of events, the word “inexorable” seems the only one to describe the cascading breakages–with her husband, lover, son, and her friends in Petersburg “society”–that leave Anna unconnected, like a beautiful marionette with all its strings cut. Although Vronsky and Anna were both judged by society for their behavior, their positions were never equivalent. Vronsky risked some things, notably in his career, but Anna risked everything. He could escape the situation by marrying, but she had no escape, she thought, but the one she chose.  In the end, she allowed herself to break like a fallen bisque doll.

I called “breakage” a motif in the film rather than simply a theme because Wright uses it repeatedly in both sights and sounds. I’ve never heard so many loud, sudden noises in a film that didn’t involve explosions or car crashes! Everyone seems poised to be startled (including the audience). The rapid scene changes and dislocations between stage and “real world” reinforce sudden revelations in the plot or strong emotions.  For example, when Anna flatly tells her husband that he is not mistaken, that she indeed loves Vronsky and is his mistress, the carriage they are riding in registers Karenin’s shock with a screech.  Often, Anna’s voice seems to catch in her throat and she draws in breath audibly.  Her gasp becomes a scream when Vronsky’s horse suddenly falls, in one of the most brilliant bits of stage business–and filmmaking–I’ve ever seen. (We know this is coming, but the surprise and horror are triggered as if we didn’t.)  Vronsky is thrown clear but the horse’s back is broken, and the unbearable shot rings out. Vronsky has lost one of beings he loves most, and the foreshadowing of irreparable brokenness is complete.

Wright’s film made me see Tolstoy’s great domestic novel as an especially poignant study in entropy, the tendency of the universe to increase in disorder: How easy it is for a horse and rider to fall, for a bone to break, or for a marriage to fail.  Mending, when it is even possible, requires tremendous energy and calls forth humility and steadfast qualities, especially love, loyalty, and forgiveness.  Without them, the din of heartbreak can be deafening.

 

“Silver: Return to Treasure Island” by Andrew Motion: A Review, with Thoughts on Sequels, Prequels, and Other Fictional Voyages

25 Oct

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion,Crown Publishers, 2012.

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The last few years have seen a number of new books about Long John Silver, the charming and treacherous one-legged pirate created by Robert Louis Stevenson in his adventure masterpiece Treasure Island (1881-1883).  John Drake’s Flint and Silver (2008), which announced itself as a prequel to Treasure Island, recounts how English sailor John Silver had to choose either a life of piracy or death after his Portuguese vessel Ria de Ponteverde was defeated in a battle with the pirate ship Victory under Captain Nathan England.  He chose to live–and thus began his first service on a pirate vessel. Meanwhile, the story of Joseph Flint takes shape elsewhere until that destined time when Flint and Silver shall meet and clash over the treasure. The events that set the stage for Treasure Island are spun out in this opener and two subsequent books by Drake, Pieces of Eight (2009) and Skull and Bones (2010). Also in 2008, Edward Chupak gave us his version of Silver in a book whose subtitle is as colorful as its subject, Silver: My Own Tale as Written by Me with A Goodly Amount of Murder. He envisions Silver’s early life as threaded with crimes, petty and otherwise, from the beginning, and lets Long John Silver narrate his life’s story in his own words.

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Jim, Long John Silver, and his Parrot, N. C. Wyeth, 1911

Instead of taking Stevenson’s characters backwards to explain their origins, Andrew Motion’s novel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island sends them forward.  As a full-fledged sequel, it assumes the story line of Treasure Island and then makes a plausible leap to carry it into the next generation.  Whereas Drake’s style and pacing reminded me of a writer like Bernard Cornwell, opening with battle and rarely stopping the action for long, and Chupak’s first-person narration swaggers like a pirate, Motion’s style and tone come much closer to Stevenson’s, in cadence, verbal grace, and reserve. Motion’s narrator is more directly comparable to Stevenson’s, as we shall see.

Skipping to the next generation provides a solid framework for any sequel, because the main characters who have survived the originating story can, if the sequel-writer wishes them to, make dramatic, but brief appearances to validate, ground, and still advance the new story. These venerable characters get to show how they are ending their days and how they are parentingthe next generation.  They may also have unfinished business to take care of before it is too late, which is unquestionably the case here.  When we meet Long John Silver, we are not surprised that he is still obsessed with the treasure. But that meeting does not take place right away.

In Motion’s sequel, as in the original, the story opens at an inn and with Jim Hawkins, but this time the inn is not the Admiral Benbow but the  Hispaniola, and the young man working there—or rather, evading his father’s orders–is Jim Hawkins, Jr., son of the Jim Hawkins, who is now middle-aged and moody, grieving for his wife who died after the birth of her only son; this haunted man brightens only when recounting his youthful adventures to all who frequent his public house  by the Thames. Because his father relives his past so often in the telling, we can be certain young Jim knows the details of the Treasure Island adventure, however reluctantly he carries its legacy.   Young Jim is the restless son of a once very restless father, and Jim, Jr. is considering his options for striking out by himself—escaping his life so far–when the appearance in the fog of a small rivercraft, the Spyglass, and its mysterious female pilot pull him swiftly into the spell of adventure and, more important, into the grasp of Long John Silver. The girl in the boat is none other than Natty Silver, the old pirate’s daughter, who has come to fetch him to meet her father (and also her intriguing mother).   In her boat Natty carries a cage holding a mynah bird named Spot—only the first indication that she is indeed her father’s daughter.

As Natty cautiously begins to reveal the facts of her life, Jim is attracted by nearly everything about her. He feels a natural kinship, since their childhoods were both dominated, if not quite blighted, by “the shadow of our fathers’ adventures.” Contemplating Natty’s beauty and compelling self-possession, and setting her beside his mental picture of Silver, young Jim wonders, “Was my companion an innocent, sprung from ancient corruption? Or was she an expert in the art of dissembling, as her father had also been?” (p. 29). Just as his own father was ambivalent about Long John, so Jim is both drawn to Natty and suspicious of her. At the very least, Natty has her father’s art of persuasion, because soon young Jim finds himself seated in her boat, headed toward her home in Wapping, and on his way to meet the legendary man who had shaped not only Natty’s life so far but also the lives of both boys named ‘Jim Hawkins.’

As in Stevenson’s classic, this story is narrated in the first person by Jim, and the fifth chapter, “I Meet a Ghost,” provides a dramatic climax to this first part; it is full of memorable, lyrical writing. When Jim first sees Silver, it is powerfully discordant with the image he has long held of the smooth villain, nimble even on his wooden leg. Natty’s father is old, emaciated, and blind, ill almost to the point of death but fiercely holding on to reach this moment. When finally apprised of Jim’s presence, it is clear he has been waiting to meet “Mr. Hawkins” with an eagerness that fascinates Jim with its intensity: “I thought that if I were to lay my hand on Mr. Silver, he would quicken into his former self, and my own fingers would become my father’s, clutching at him for help, or to repel him” (p. 48). Aware himself of the shimmering contradiction he represented, Silver says:

“It is me! Long John Silver as was. But neither of these any more. Not for many a day. It is Mr. Silver now—the same man but different. Like music set in a different key, you might say.” (p.52)

 Motion brings a very natural poetic cadence to Silver’s speech, and this special rhythm serves to show how careful the old pirate can still be when choosing the words that will achieve his purposes.

Silver has longed for this moment of reunion across generations, but more than that, he has been waiting for this opportunity—the chance to recover something he’s been missing these long years, the treasure map still in the possession of Jim Hawkins, Sr., in a chest kept locked at the foot of his bed, with the only key held close by a cord around his neck.  Will young Jim betray his father to the extent of stealing this map, or “borrowing” it, as Silver entreats him to do? Silver knows the weaknesses of a young man’s heart–his urge for independence and adventure  and his discomfort in the yoke of his father’s commands; he especially intuits how to persuade this young man, with the path made smoother by the budding friendship between Natty and Jim (aloof interest on her side, romantic longing already on his). Andrew Motion has prepared the way admirably and subtly with his picture of the strain between father and son, showing the faults and wounds that made the older Jim a difficult father.

Why “borrow” the map? To recover the barred silver still cached on Treasure Island, even many years after enough gold had been recovered on that earlier voyage to make prudent men rich and secure for life–not that the older generation had been exactly prudent with their wealth.  This unfinished business from the first novel becomes the engine for the sequel, and it surely would stall right here if Jim did not agree to obtain the treasure map by stealth—so I am not revealing much in this.  But I leave it to the reader to embark on the adventure of the “Return to Treasure Island”—to accompany the voyage out on the Silver Nightingale, and to learn what horrors (not too strong a word) the crew and passengers discover on the lonely island.  I will only say that before they reach Treasure Island the novel has a trancelike quality, as if it were occurring in the dream-time. (Perhaps this poetic rhythm is not surprising, coming from this author who is a former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom and current President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England.)  After they reach the island, however, the trance is broken: the brutality disclosed to them exceeds even their imaginings of the dangers such an isolated society might present, if left to itself.  In the end, this will lead Jim to reflect on “the persistence of evil, and the thousand ways in which we are likely to be disappointed when we look for a better world” (p. 382). Motion does have a habit of telling the reader what to think about whatever is happening, often by having Jim repeatedly interpret himself, drawing conclusions about his own motives, disavowing some and affirming others.   Sometimes this comes off as natural, while at other times it feels like an authorial intrusion; in most cases, however, these observations are trenchant and therefore largely welcome on their own terms.

In his excellent New York Times piece, “To Be Continued: The art of the sequel,” Motion considered the varieties of sequels and their distinctive place in the shape-shifting web of ideas fostered by online communication, with its diverse channels for self-expression. Interestingly, he locates their function primarily as agents of continuity rather than change. To be sure, a good sequel will do more than imitate its original or simply finish an unsettled thread of a story; it will develop and teach something new about the original characters, plot, or themes, placing them in a different or expanded context. But Motion fastens on sequels as modes of preservation–even conservation–safeguarding what we have already inherited as familiar and true about a narrative and the fictional people who live within its bounds. In this view, a sequel (or prequel) that too drastically alters the foundational plot or tampers too much with its characters may strike readers as a misrepresentation.  The “art” of the sequel must surely, then, consist in finding clever ways of respecting these boundaries while sometimes inventively skirting them. For example, CBS’s new series “Elementary” keeps enough of the canonical features of Sherlock Holmes and Dr.  Watson (even when Watson is named “Joan” and played by Lucy Liu), including their dynamic partnership  and Holmes’s singular methods of detection, to pass muster as a related, though highly unconventional, sequel (or so it seems to me). The BBC’s “Sherlock” maintains continuity with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s plots, but performs rather astounding transformations on them, retaining enough to convince.  By contrast, as a moviegoer, I didn’t feel that Beastly (2011) kept enough of the threads of the original to tie it to the “Beauty and the Beast” fairytale.

Motion follows his own rules in his sequel to Treasure Island. The sacred original is respected and readers can comfortably assume it as a limiting framework within which the new story will consistently unfold. The elder Jim Hawkins seems to have changed the most, and yet there is license for him to differ, since he was still a boy when the action of Stevenson’s novel closed. Motion makes a convincing case that Jim had trouble “coming home” after his youthful exploits were over, and some of his efforts at “normal” landlubbing life turned to sorrow. His obsession with telling tales from his youth provides familiarity and ensures continuity into this younger generation. And Silver is still Silver. When Jim sees Natty and the captain of the Nightingale so faithfully carrying out John Silver’s bidding, he muses that “the old man’s force of personality was evidently still extraordinary, although his body had almost ceased to be” (p. 115). As Silver’s body atrophied and weakened (symbolically extending his loss of a leg), his personal force was still radiantly alive and powerful. Thus, while crafting the changes to a character in a sequel (or in a prequel, anticipating changes that will solidify in the foundation narrative), the sequel author must choose among those characteristics which are deemed to be defining and central to the character’s personhood in the fictional universe. Motion has done a splendid job of this, and the new characters he has launched—Jim Hawkins, Jr. and Natty Silver—are attractive and complex enough to support their own sequels to this inaugural voyage.

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“Elementary” premiere on CBS–a very new Holmes and Watson keep the faith

28 Sep

 

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Although I planned to write next about Andrew Motion’s Silver, his excellent sequel to Treasure Island, I can’t resist commenting on the premiere episode of “Elementary” on CBS last night, with its inspired pairing of Jonny Lee Miller, as recovering addict Sherlock Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, ex-surgeon, now hired by Holmes’s father as a companion to oversee his son’s first months out of rehab.  It is inspired because their chemistry together is strong from the start, both a clash and an attraction of personalities, and not primarily sexual. This clever justification for Watson’s shadowing Holmes’s every move, accompanying him on a case when they have barely met, gives the series a solid premise to build on;  by the end of the first episode, there are already hints that the relationship is growing beyond duty and grudging acceptance to one of mutual interest, usefulness, and even caring.

In his indispensable essay “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Michael Chabon observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Holmes (in the first two novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) was presented as more resolutely strange and nonconformist. He suggests that Holmes was the product of the same Victorian duality that made a Dorian Gray or Jekyll and Hyde. However, as the author turned to writing his detective short stories, some of these darker traits dropped away and a seemingly more conservative (if never quite conventional) Holmes emerged.

“beginning in 1891 with the first great short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle abandoned most of the louche, Wildean touches with which he had initially encumbered the character of Holmes. The outré personal habits, the vampiric hours, the drug use, the willfully outrageous ignorance of ‘useless facts,’ such as the order of the solar system or contemporary politics, gave way to a more conventional and cozy sort of eccentricity.” (from Chabon’s collected essays, Maps and Legends, p. 33)

Readers may argue how much of this side of Holmes truly dropped away—perhaps it merely receded into the background and emerged when the stresses brought about the necessary conditions (especially true of the drug use).  Most writers and adapters of the characters since Conan Doyle have cherished one or more of these eccentricities in their raw state, and “Elementary” is no exception. Its Holmes has quite literally just emerged from drug rehabilitation and he appears to Watson for the first time in an apparently untamed state—shirtless, unshaven, twitchy, restless, and recalcitrant. While he is dismissing the necessity of Joan Watson’s services as “babysitter,” he is also keen to deductively size her up, almost as a compulsive tic rather than a power play. It is a subtle performance and the generous closeups permit ample appreciation of the restraint  and skill of both actors. Naturally, he talks very, very fast. Both updated Sherlocks—this one in New York and the BBC’s Sherlock in today’s London—operate on the premise that speed of expression and mental powers are perfectly correlated (something I would take issue with, in practice). However, it certainly works as a sign to their Watsons and to their audiences at home that one must snap to, pay attention, and try to keep up!

Owing to his recent treatment, this Holmes is in a somewhat vulnerable state, something he shares with Darlene Cypser’s young Sherlock in her Consulting Detective series. Both are in crisis for medical reasons and both are at odds with a disappointed father.  In “Elementary” it rankles Holmes that upon relocating to New York from London, he must accept living in the “worst” of the several apartments his father owns. Fortunately, solving difficult criminal cases proves highly therapeutic (true for Cypser’s Holmes as well). This is very fortunate for the TV viewer too, because a murder comes in his way very quickly and is admirably resolved within the single episode—I hope this pattern continues, whatever development occurs across episodes for the continuing characters.  Aidan Quinn as Captain Gregson of the NYPD is an outstanding touch, though appearing only briefly, and I hope to see his role grow.

A great deal is accomplished in this first episode. Because their relationship begins on a note of distrust, Holmes and Watson must each win some measure of trust and respect from the other, enough for the relationship to persist until the next episode (and then the next). It is fascinating to see how this Watson wins Holmes’s admiration, and this incident leads to the only uncharacteristic move his character makes—claiming to anticipate an outcome that came as quite a surprise to him. I cannot think of an example in the canon where Holmes deliberately claimed he’d deduced something he hadn’t. (Perhaps others can think of an instance I’ve overlooked.) His admission to Watson about this begins paradoxically to kindle in her a greater faith in him, even if it is only the hope that he is actually human.

Michael Chabon, in the same essay I mentioned earlier, takes Conan Doyle to task for not having enough faith in his own character at the outset, perhaps always underestimating his merit and worth as the greatest project of his life. To me, this matter of faith in Holmes is very central. Conan Doyle’s very ambivalence about Holmes may be one answer to the riddle of why Sherlock Holmes was, is, and has remained so compelling. The drama of Holmes needing to win faith and trust from his clients, from skeptical police, even from the occasional perpetrator, is enacted over and over with each new story and novel in the canon, and again with each new pastiche or fresh realization of the character in film or television. Holmes keeps winning readers’ and viewers’  faith, whether his creator could credit their loyal belief in him or not.  Authors from Conan Doyle onward have Holmes demonstrate his powers with such force and clarity, he makes believers out of skeptics of all description.  A show like “Elementary” really only gets one opening chance to inspire faith that this Holmes can be and do what any “real” Holmes should be and do. Watson is our guide, leading us to wonder and then to believe in him.  In the course of this first episode, Dr. Joan Watson learned enough to stay by her Holmes, and I think viewers will keep returning too.

Reference:

Michael Chabon, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes” in Maps and Legends. Open Road, 2011 [kindle edition]. (Original work published 2008)

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Coming of Age as a Detective: Sherlock Holmes in “The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I”*

8 Sep

The Consulting Detective Trilogy Part I: University by Darlene A. Cypser, Foolscap & Quill, 2012.

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Following her masterful debut novel, The Crack in the Lens (which I reviewed last year), Darlene Cypser is continuing her psychologically rich Sherlockian prequels in a new Consulting Detective Trilogy.  After young Sherlock’s first run-in with Professor Moriarty (in the previous novel), one which left him bereft of his first love, Violet Rushdale, and almost unhinged from his sanity, the first installment of the trilogy finds him still making only a precarious recovery at home but embarking nevertheless on his university studies at Cambridge, where he must cope with further dramatic events that will form his character and fully reveal his life’s purpose.

The budding field of psychiatry as a branch of medicine is beginning to make its appearance in the latter part of the century, and Cypser takes full advantage of the possibilities in the early chapters of the novel.  Sherlock continues to be physically and emotionally at his lowest ebb as the novel begins. He is suffering from flashbacks of Violet’s death and a cycle of obsessive recrimination and anxiety that we would not hesitate to label post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, today. But more than 100 years ago, a sufferer risked commitment in an asylum that had little hope to offer except for palliative physical care, restraint from self-harm, and the rudiments of counseling for the lucky few who encountered a capable doctor.  While Sherlock struggled at home, he began receiving visits from Dr Mackenzie, one such capable doctor summoned from the asylum to consult about Sherlock’s condition. While Moriarty was nemesis to Sherlock in the first book, in this new novel, Dr Mackenzie fills the role of an anti-Moriarty, proving to be not only a trusted physician but a crucial ally and mentor as Sherlock’s attraction to the sciences—and the science of detection—increases.

However, the doctor’s experimental remedy for Sherlock’s “traumatic neurasthenia,” namely, an injected solution of cocaine, will dog him throughout his life, first as blessing, and then as a persistent and secret curse. But here, in the beginning, it served its purpose, suppressing his anxiety and panic attacks, while fueling his intellectual excitement:  “Sherlock’s loquaciousness [on the train with Mycroft for a holiday] varied as the influence of the drug varied, fading out as it did. His true nature lay somewhere between the extremes” (p. 113).

The novel hits its stride as Sherlock barely begins to find his, as a new member of Sidney Sussex College, which is pictured in foreboding darkness on the book’s attractive cover.  And darkness is surely still haunting Sherlock as he begins his studies in mathematics, living out of college in private rooms. His panic attacks can still be triggered by anything that reminds him of Violet’s death (such as an early snowfall) or unduly taxes his nerves. Fortunately, he has a capable and devoted companion in young Jonathan Beckwith, who accompanies his charge to Cambridge as servant, as fencing pupil and partner (when Sherlock is strong enough), but above all as Sherlock’s only friend, besides Dr. Mackenzie, for many months of self-imposed isolation.  (Jonathan is so engaging and colorful a character that Cypser has announced plans for another mystery trilogy from his point of view.)

Ironically, Sherlock’s first close friendship at university, with classmate Victor Trevor, begins quite unpromisingly with a dangerous bite from Trevor’s dog. (We also glimpse the aloof Reginald Musgrave and his coolness to Holmes.)  But the friendship with Victor develops rapidly during Sherlock’s convalescence; he visits daily and introduces Sherlock to pipe-smoking, which incidentally provides a stimulant and practical alternative to cocaine. At this point, Cypser deftly interpolates her own retelling of “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott” from the Conan Doyle canon; as it is told retrospectively by Holmes, this account intersects with the chronology of Cypser’s story of Holmes’s university days. While he spends a holiday with Victor Trevor and Trevor’s father, events precipitate his first solution of a mystery, one calling forth the unique observational and deductive skills he has already demonstrated casually to the amazement of his classmates. But the stakes soon rise to life and death, and Holmes begins to see—as he later affirms—“perhaps I’m not your average man.” He is destined to pursue no average calling but to create his own profession, as the world’s first consulting detective.

It is the business of this novel to unfold for us Sherlock’s early exercise of talent in a new mystery at the university (which I won’t reveal), as well as his change of academic  direction, suiting all his studies to those sciences which will inform and develop his detection skills and build his arsenal of knowledge.  Though not aiming to become a police detective, he is fascinated by police detectives’ work and gets into some nasty scrapes trying to observe it first hand, much too closely for their comfort.  With his prodigious memory, he begins to be a serious student of crime and collects accounts of it. Mycroft sends him clippings from the London papers, and with satisfaction, the reader watches the genesis of his alphabetic file of crime reports, which will come in handy so often, tantalize the reader with names and cases Watson hasn’t yet narrated, and fill Mrs. Hudson with consternation when the mass of riffled clippings is strewn everywhere at 221b…

But all that lies in the future. For now, Sherlock is a young man not quite 20 who must deal with authority figures still wielding much power over his life, whether they are university officials or his own implacable father. It is also the business of this novel to show how he will assert his own choice and begin to follow his “line in life”—which will also be his lifeline, drawing him back from his darkest moods.

In a recent New York Times essay,The Art of the Sequel,” author Andrew Motion considered the proliferation of literary sequels and prequels,  even including an  “I, Sherlock Holmes”  on his facetious list of typical sequel titles. Based on his analysis of some of the most effective sequels, such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (a sequel to Hamlet) or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre), he offered some pointers to would-be fashioners of such works.  Although it is a tremendous advantage that the characters are already familiar, and possibly beloved, a successful sequel or prequel “allows us to think afresh about characters whose fame can otherwise make them feel inaccessible to new interpretations.”  In other words, it should attempt to add something more to what we already know about them, perhaps surprise us by its revelations, even when we believe we already know a character—say, a complex hero such as Holmes—very well indeed.  Moreover, sequel-writing presupposes a certain playfulness, artfully inserting familiar references, while deploying ingenuity to put the character to a new test. No matter how much we revere a character, Motion argues, “something more than imitation is far more honoring.”

Both of Darlene Cypser’s Sherlockian prequels to date fulfill these criteria.  Her pastiches are not imitation but exploration, and she shows the confidence and command of the canon which enable her to inquire more deeply into Holmes’s formative psychology.  Her latest novel has the hallmarks of a true bildungsroman—a coming-of-age novel—about a sensitive protagonist, often a youngest son, who suffers loss and undergoes a series of difficult trials that lead to mastery of self and ultimately to maturity.  It can encompass education or other training disciplines, artistic development, and apprenticeships (Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship being the classic example). At the end, the hero understands himself better, knows how he might move beyond self to contribute to the world, and is both ready and equipped to do it.

Through psychological insight, swift movement of the plot via effective dialogue, and consistent characterization, Cypser has fashioned a bildungsroman for young Sherlock with great skill.  As goddessinsepia writes, with her usual grace and clear perception,

“By the end of Cypser’s second novel, the reader stands in full knowledge and awareness of the man before them, and you wonder how you missed it, so understated was his development. Where previously there was only the merest hint of the man that would become the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes now stands tall, assembled, if not yet fully-formed.”  [See the rest of her insightful review at her blog Better Holmes and Gardens]

My interest and absorption in this story never flagged, a tribute to Cypser’s high level of craft.  I also enjoyed her humor, for example, when a fellow student observed Sherlock’s easy victory over an opponent who had challenged him to a match with unfamiliar fencing sticks, the bemused spectator remarked, “I don’t think the weapon matters. Holmes could probably thrash any of us with a teaspoon.”  This first installment of The Consulting Detective Trilogy works as mystery fiction, but more than that, it emerges as a fully rounded novel of Sherlock Holmes.

*Note: FTC disclosure. I received a complimentary review copy of this novel. The opinions I’ve expressed are, of course, my own.

  • In my next post, I will review Andrew Motion’s own sequel, Silver: Return to Treasure Island.

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“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (2)

25 Jul

Arabian Nights and Days: A Novel by Naguib Mahfouz, trans. by Denys Johnson-Davies, Doubleday,  1995. (Originally published 1979 in Arabic)

Whatever Gets You Through the Night: A Story of Sheherezade and the Arabian Entertainments by Andrei Codrescu, Princeton University Press, 2011.

“Shéhérezade” (ballet, 1910), choreography by Mikhail Fokine, The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky [DVD], Kultur, 2002.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade/ Russian Easter Overture [CD]. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano, conducting. Telarc, 2001.

In my previous post, reviewing Marina Warner’s exciting new work of cultural criticism, Stranger Magic, I promised to discuss  a few examples of retellings that continue to expand Scheherazade’s legacy. The  corpus of such retellings and variations is truly a measureless “sea of stories,” to borrow a bit of the title from Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an illustrious example of this genre of storytelling art. One reader of my review of Warner, Ray Wilcockson, cited Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882), a collection of Stevenson’s earliest stories that flowed from his own excitement over reading the Arabian Nights and which adapted its connected structure for his own modern tales. Warner mentions Stevenson, along with many other writers whose work has been prompted and inspired by the Arabian Nights. She recommends Robert Irwin’s excellent survey of such works in his chapter, “Children of the Nights” (in his book, The Arabian Nights: A Companion).

I will write about two books, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and Whatever Gets You Through the Night by Andrei Codrescu.  These two caught my attention because of their focus on Scheherazade herself and their further exploration of the frame story of The Arabian Nights. I will also consider the most famous musical exposition of the character of Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korskov’s (1888) symphonic suite, and how the ballet later choreographed to that music diverged from the composer’s conception. 

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The Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobelist in literature,  is probably best known for his Cairo Trilogy (in Arabic; published in English with the titles Palace WalkPalace of Desire, and Sugar Street). I was delighted to read his later novel Arabian Nights and Days, which is a sophisticated retelling of the Nights’ frame story and some of its important tales.  Mahfouz refashions the stories to bring new insight into the characters of Shahrzad and Shahriyar (as they are spelled in Denys Johnson-Davies’ spare, yet mellifluous translation); they must truly grapple with the implications of all that gone before the moment when Shahrzad’s storytelling begins. Mahfouz connects each tale to the one that follows with seamless logic and suspense, and he brings greater depth even to such figures as Ma’rouf the Cobbler, Ugr the Barber, and, of course, Aladdin and Sindbad. But for me, the most arresting moment came when he implicitly asked the novelistic question, how would Shahrzad feel when she achieved her “victory” over the Sultan? His examination of this question plumbs new depths latent in one of the most well-known stories in world literature.

Before we see Shahrzad, Mahfouz shows us her father, the sultan’s vizier Dandan.  In the three years that his daughter has been suspending Shahriyar’s death sentence with her entrancing stories, the vizier’s anxiety has not been suspended–quite the opposite. Each morning he would go to the palace, waiting to discover if this dawn would be Shahrzad’s last.  On this day, “the heart of a father quaked within him” because he knew Shahrzad had done the unthinkable–she had ended her tale and her own fate must be decided one way or the other.

Dandan found Shahriyar alone, contemplating the first hints of sunrise:  he says,”It is our wish that Shahrzad remain our wife. …Her stories are white magic…They open up worlds that invite reflection” (p. 2). When the Sultan continues, announcing that Shahrazad gave him a son and brought peace to his “troubled spirits,” the vizier wishes him happiness now and in the hereafter. This innocent blessing triggers a biting response–the Sultan dismisses the notion of happiness and puzzles over existence itself. In this way, we are given the first hint that although death is forestalled, “happily ever after” may not come as easily.

Next the vizier seeks out his daughter. Her response to her reprieve is complex and profound, even though it unfolds in a brief exchange that barely takes up two pages. Shahrzad acknowledges that by “the Lord’s mercy” her life has been spared and the young women of the city–those remaining–are no longer in peril, but at the cost of her happiness: “’I sacrificed myself,’ she said sorrowfully, ‘in order to stem the torrent of blood’” (p. 3).  The vizier protests that the Sultan now loves her and that love works miracles, but Shahrzad answers  that, “Arrogance and love do not come together in one heart” and, most devastating of all, “Whenever he approaches me I breathe the smell of blood” (p. 4).

Mahfouz has seemingly told the end at the beginning, but is it really the end? As his brilliantly refashioned cycle of tales nears its conclusion, Shahriyar becomes prominent again as the auditor of Sindbad’s tales of his voyages, told by Sindbad himself as fables of the wisdom he won along the way. Shahriyar persistently queries him as if his (Shahriyar’s) life depended on the answers. Sindbad finishes and Shahriyar retreats to his lush flower garden, pacing and remembering, his mind in turmoil and his heart gripped by weariness and disgust at his life–at the follies of life itself. He summons Shahrzad for a new dialogue–one not known to the ancient tradition but equally fateful, and full of truths as ancient as humanity. He confesses his need for repentance and reveals that he has known all along of her that “your body approaches while your heart turns away.” In a masterful stroke, Mahfouz’s Shahriyar asserts that he kept Shahrzad close to him as a reproach–“I found in your aversion a continued torment that I deserved” (p. 217). Shahrzad weeps, her heart melting perhaps for the first time in his presence, and he sees at once that this weeping means more than all the pretense of her love up to that point.  He vows to renounce his kingdom and wander in search of wisdom and meaning, leaving his son, with Shahrzad’s counsel, to rule more wisely than he did. Now it is Shahrzad’s turn to see the bitter irony of this sudden decision–“You are spurning me as my heart opens to you. …It is an opposing destiny that is mocking us” (p. 218).

I hope readers of this blog will forgive the “spoilers” I have felt necessary to include. I shall leave one last surprise unspoken–what Shahriyar discovers on his quest for truth. But I wanted to disclose this much to make clear what a tour de force this new resolution of the frame story represents. Mahfouz’s alternative frame story refuses to find Shahriyar’s healing at the point when he rescinds the order of execution. No, that will not be enough to cure a soul that has strayed so far. Shahrzad feels this in her own heart, but she has done all she can do. She carries the wounds of all the sacrificed wives who preceded her, and now she too is in need of healing. Only Shahriyar’s act of atonement1 can change the equation. And with amazing poignance, it is only at the moment when the Sultan decides to leave Shahrzad that their real love story begins. 

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NPR contributor and prolific writer Andrei Codrescu offers a retelling, Whatever Gets You Through the Night, that could hardly be more different from Mahfouz’s in tone and aims. Mahfouz is spare and restrained, recounting events and suggesting feelings and motivations with great economy. Codrescu is expansive (his Sheherezad doesn’t appear until page 46!), revelling in digression and comment, in voluminous marginal notes that can sometimes ring the main text in small type.  In his ironic, punning treatment of the stories and in his commentary, he reveals his attitudes toward the gender politics of the stories as well as the whole historical enterprise of translating and transmitting the tales. Twenty-three different epigraphs, arranged together before the main text, quote sources ranging from Wikipedia to rival translators Richard Francis Burton and Husain Haddawy to critic J. Hillis Miller to the Rolling Stone, announcing that this retelling will be openly conscious of all the textual history that has gone before.  A preface of sorts includes these observations on Sheherezade:

“We are bound to tell her story no matter what our postmodern wishes or rebellious inclinations might tell us: simply pronouncing her name invokes her. When she appears, like the Genie in the bottle of literature that she is, we must obey the order of her stories [he doesn’t]; this is the exact opposite of the Genii and Genies who are freed or imprisoned in the bottles of her characters, who must obey their liberators….” (p. 1)

This passage is characteristic of Codrescu and of the experience of reading this book: expect trenchant observations delivered with irreverence, skepticism, and a winking eye. Also expect the story will linger on lurid details of the murders of the Sultan’s previous wives and explicit description of the sexual situations implicit in the story. This text attempts to startle the reader into taking a fresh look at an old narrative tradition. Within that tradition, Codrescu aligns his sympathy more nearly with Burton, whose titillating translation, cloaked in archaic language, fed a certain late-Victorian appetite, especially his own.

Codrescu makes crucial archetypal connections between Scheherazade and figures such as Penelope and Ariadne, as in this brilliant synthesis:

“Sheherezade’s job was to be like Ariadne to make the King believe that she was showing him the way out of the labyrinth of his insecurity and cruelty, while weaving [like Penelope] at the same time a labyrinth from which he could never escape to kill again.” (p. 97)

The net that is woven is an erotic one, but oddly Sheherezade herself is sidelined in favor of her sister, Dinarzad. The storytelling ménage à trois becomes a sexual pas de deux between the two listeners, Sharyar and Dinarzad, whose dalliance fails to reach its climax just as each story’s ending is postponed.

Codrescu offers what he calls the “unpopular” ending, one in which he posits there was no baby, no reconciliation of the Sultan to women, and, therefore, no pardon for his Sheherezade; he prefers to believe that the stories had no end and we can listen in whenever we choose.  In fact we need to listen, trancelike, he argues, because we cannot face our lives without entertainment. Thus, he concludes with an extended meditation on media culture where we are “angry mass-Sharyars” and “terrified when you are silent” (p. 173).  All of this does end up being intriguing and a very modern deconstructive performance, but I confess that I preferred Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days, which explored more deeply the redemptive core of the Nights, while preserving the echoes of the imaginative realms that gave it birth.

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I was going to write at length about Rimsky-Korsakov’s gorgeously melodic symphonic suite of Scheherazade and compare it with Mikhail Fokine’s popular Scheherazade ballet of 1910, set to some of its music, and with a new libretto by Léon Bakst and Fokine. (Rimsky-Korsakov’s widow was apparently quite unhappy with the rearrangement of the score.) Despite its name,  the ballet dramatizes only events occurring before the intervention of Scheherazade, namely, the infidelity of the Sultan’s first wife. Most of the dancing is a sensuous, extended duet between Zobeide2 (the wife) and a “Golden Slave”–in Fokine’s Ballet Russes choreography, this role was a vehicle for the superlative genius of Vaslav Nijinsky.

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Unfortunately, Scheherazade’s recurring narration from bed does not lend itself easily to having her dance!   Ahh, but I see the night grows short, this post is already very long, and I must stop for now and send you to meet the musical Scheherazade for yourself in the lyrical space beyond words…

Notes:

  1.  In this connection, I highly recommend Phil Cousineau’s Beyond Forgiveness: Reflections on Atonement (Jossey-Bass, 2011), which collects essays from diverse authors on ways to move from words of repentance or forgiveness toward atoning actions which may potentially heal both parties.
  2.  I recommend a performance of Fokine’s ballet in The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky (DVD), but be aware that the back-cover text incorrectly identifies the principal female role (danced by Svetlana Zakharova) as Shehérézade instead of Zobeide.

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“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (1)

10 Jul

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.

 

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If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did.  Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one.  Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources.  Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,”  “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission.  For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.

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As Warner says,  the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade.  Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting.  Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer!  Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!

 

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[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]

Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill.  One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis).   As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London,  where it is exhibited.

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The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419).  This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself.  Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.

What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world?  Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.”  She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel  García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others.  She writes:

“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)

She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).

As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing.  The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…

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In and “Out of Oz”: Dorothy in the “Wicked Years” series

2 Jun

Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire, illus. by Douglas Smith. HarperCollins, 2011.

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Dorothy, the beloved character created at the turn of the 20th-century by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, makes pivotal appearances in all four volumes of Gregory Maguire’s inspired refashioning of the Oz world, his “Wicked Years” series.  She does not hold center stage, however, in these books which are a brilliant exercise in empathy for the “Wicked” witch, Elphaba Thropp,  and her descendants.  These books imaginatively alter an already alternate universe, and transform a classic of children’s fantasy literature–also widely appreciated by adults–into a sometimes quite disturbing fantasy fiction for adults. In this alternate history, Dorothy Gale still comes in and out of Oz, on and off the stage, at crucial times and much of the story could never exist without her.

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Dorothy’s first visit to Oz comes along rather late in Wicked (2004), which introduced Elphaba’s family, chronicled her childhood, and sent her to college in the Gillikin town of Shiz where she unwillingly shared a room with Galinda (later Glinda) and began to learn about the politics of Oz and where she would stand on them.  For one thing, she championed the cause of the free, sentient, talking Animals (always capitalized, as in Lion). She also came to recognize the tyranny of the Emerald City over the other regions of Oz, which were exploited by its leader the Wizard.  After their college years were over, Elphaba began to act, in secret, as an agent of the resistance to the Wizard. 

Dorothy’s arrival from Kansas in the twister-propelled house killed Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who had become the leader of Munchkinland.  Here the story begins to intersect recognizably with Baum’s tale.  Glinda gave Nessarose’s magical slippers to Dorothy, enraging Elphaba, who retreated again to a castle deep in the western region of Oz, the Vinkus (Winkie country). This place was the family home of Fiyero, Elphaba’s only love and father of her son Liir; Fiyero was killed by the Wizard’s secret police who were after her.  While Dorothy and her motley companions walked the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard, Elphaba learned sorcery from the Grimmerie, a magic text which had attracted the Wizard to Oz in the first place.

Dorothy had apparently accepted the Wizard’s charge to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, but in Maguire’s telling, she had no such intention, but journeyed there to apologize to Elphaba for killing her sister with the falling house. Elphaba had become embittered by many griefs and their meeting was confrontational and disastrous. Elphaba’s skirts were set on fire and Dorothy threw the bucket of water to douse the flames and save her, but this melted and killed her instead.

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The next book, Son of a Witch (2005), tells Liir’s story (with flashbacks to fill in gaps) from the death of Elphaba to the birth of his own daughter.  Dorothy’s role is brief. She took him with her back to the Emerald City and Liir developed a crush of sorts on the odd Kansas farmgirl. Perhaps her being so out of place in Oz spoke to his own sense of disconnection with all that had happened to him.

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A Lion Among Men  recounts Dorothy’s first visit to Oz from the view point of Sir Brrr, otherwise known as the Cowardly Lion. But it spans more of his life than this one episode, and thereby reveals more of his character, in keeping with the series’ ethos of respecting intelligent Animals.  

In the final volume, Out of Oz, Dorothy returns to Oz, this time in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906! (This reference to the quake in popular culture has already found its way into the wikipedia article on the event.) Auntie Em and Uncle Henry have taken Dorothy on a trip west from Kansas, in hopes that the change of scene will help cure Dorothy of her persistent delusional talk about Oz!  Maguire manipulates the chronology deftly: From 1900 (publication of Baum’s first Oz book) to 1906 is 6 years and Dorothy has aged from 10 at her first visit to 16 for her second. Meanwhile, about 16 years have passed in Oz (leading to jokes  where Dorothy agrees that time passes slowly–very slowly–in Kansas).  Most of the book follows the coming-of-age adventures of Rain, Liir’s daughter and thus Elphaba’s granddaughter.  The best Oz stories have a child at their heart and Maguire’s concluding tale is no different in that respect. The Cowardly Lion is likewise one of Rain’s faithful companions and provides a necessary link between the first and last books and between Baum’s storyworld and Maguire’s. 

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Some of the key plot elements (the war of rebellion in Oz) and several of the characters (including Tip, Mombey, Ozma, and Jinjuria) in Out of Oz mirror those in Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). Of Baum’s fourteen Oz novels, this is the only one in which Dorothy doesn’t appear. However, Maguire gives her an important role, especially in the centerpiece murder trial, “The Judgment of Dorothy.”  Revealing how that came out would be a *spoiler* indeed!

Instead of revealing more of Maguire’s well-crafted plot, let me consider instead how he portrays Dorothy in this series and how his attitude toward her differs from Baum’s. Given how she is described by the narrator and how other characters speak of her, she is an ungainly child, “not a dainty thing but a good-size farm girl,” (Wicked, p. 3), and an even more awkward teenager.  Rather than fitting Baum illustrator John R. Neill’s winsome vision…  

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she seems much closer to the stocky miss imagined by her first illustrator, W. W. Denslow. 

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She is saccharine, “misguidedly cheerful,” given to inappropriate singing, apparently stupid, and clearly a menace! In the prologue to Wicked, Elphaba finds her sympathy patronizing. While naive and guileless, she has a definite presence, especially during her trial:

Aha, thought Brrr, there it is: she has graduated to Miss Dorothy. In her zanily earnest way, she’s commanding the respect of her enemies despite themselves. Brrr would never call it charisma but oh, Dorothy had charm of a sort, for sure. (Out of Oz, p. 294)

Her best qualities came out in her desire to make amends and her insistence on helping Rain. But in the end, for Maguire, Dorothy’s life, despite its adventures and calamities (she was an orphan), was not touched to the same degree by the sorrows and tragedies that characterized the Wicked clan. Her disposition was so incredible to the Ozians that they imagined at one point that she must be an assassin, disguised “as a gullible sweetheart.”  Baum prized Dorothy’s innocent goodness, her wide-eyed, doughty good humor, but in the Wicked universe (our universe?), it became almost an affront to the inhabitants laboring under so much pain. The onslaught of sorrows broke Elphaba’s spirit, left Liir perplexed, and made Rain cry for “the whole pitfall of it, the stress and mercilessness of incident” (p. 421). Even Glinda was imprisoned and suffered during the war.  The gentle satire of Dorothy’s “soapy character” makes it clear that this author would not choose her outlook, but instead felt greater affinity for Elphaba above all, whose tortured spirit never really leaves the saga for long.

 

“The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd: A Review, with remarks on Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House”*

2 May

It might be said that, for great literature, pastiche is the sincerest form of flattery. The works of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others, have been particular favorites in the art of pastiche, because of the wealth of opportunity they offer for variation and creative amalgamation. Not to be confused with parody, pastiche is “(a) a literary, artistic, or musical composition made up of bits from various sources; potpourri; (b) such a composition intended to imitate or ridicule another’s style” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1982). The element of parody can be present, but pastiche can equally well be a work of respectful imitation and delightful re-invention.

Such are the mystery novels of literary specialist Lynn Shepherd, whose first work, Murder at Mansfield Park (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), turned the tables on Austen’s heroine Fanny Price and found new possibilities for Mary Crawford and the other young people gathered at the venerable country house. In particular, she plucked Charles Maddox from his relatively minor role as a prospective player in the “Lovers’ Vows” private theatrical and repurposed him as a very excellent detective.

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For her second mystery, Shepherd has pushed the clock ahead a few decades to the 1850s and she has found her inspiration chiefly (but not exclusively) in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In The Solitary House (Delacorte Press, 2012; titled Tom-All-Alone’s, in the UK), Shepherd brings her careful attention and knowledge to produce a new detective story that worthily comments on its original, varies it meaningfully, and finally stands on its own.

 

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G. K. Chesterton, still one of Dickens’s most perceptive and appreciative critics, wrote: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel.” John Forster, Dickens’s friend and early biographer, agreed in his estimation of Bleak House: “The novel is nevertheless, in the very important particular of construction, perhaps the best thing done by Dickens.” Shepherd avows that Bleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece; her affection and appreciation for the novel is everywhere evident. In The Solitary House, she makes full use of what Bleak House offers, even adapting a selection of Dickens’s chapter titles, rearranging them, and giving them a new significance in the context of her own detective mystery. Here we meet again the inscrutable lawyer and repository of his clients’ secrets, Tulkinghorn, and the jovial, but keen-eyed and relentless Inspector Bucket.  (Dickens’s illustrator Hablot Knight Browne, “Phiz,” chose to illustrate the jovial side in the “Friendly Behaviour of Mr. Bucket”; image scan by George P. Landow.)

 

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Thankfully, the Maddox family has jumped from the fictive world of Austen to take a decisive role in this tangled Dickensian world. Young Charles Maddox, the great-nephew of the detective in Murder at Mansfield Park, has followed the elder Maddox into his profession, and both have important connections to Bucket: Bucket, it turns out, was the elder detective’s protégé, whereas young Charles Maddox has just lost his official place in the detective police force because of “insubordination” in a clash with his boss, Inspector Bucket. Young Charles is a rough-and-ready fellow–rough around the edges from all the buffeting he has received, but still ready to pursue the truth despite all costs. At one point, after he has taken a beating, he says to his great-uncle, “As far as I’m concerned, this case is only half over. I have Tulkinghorn’s money, and I intend to spend it finding out exactly what it is he doesn’t want me to know” (p.136).

After reading about 80 pages of Shepherd’s book, I went in search of a copy of Bleak House for a re-read and refresher. I wanted to appreciate in detail what she was doing, and although I can’t claim to have caught all her skillfully placed references, I found much pleasure in comparing the two books. For example, she begins her novel, as Dickens does, with “London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.” But then she takes up the symbolic topics of the mud and fog and riffs on them with her own associations and from her own research into Victorian London.  This Prologue also introduces the reader to her Narrator. Like Dickens, Shepherd tells her story by means of a double narrative, from an anonymous third-person narrator and from a first-person account (Esther’s, in Bleak House; Hester’s, in The Solitary House).  Dickens’s third-person narrator is knowing, but not omniscient. Critic Jeremy Hawthorne comments on this important structural innovation: “It is important to stress that not only is Esther ignorant of the anonymous narrator and his narrative, but the anonymous narrator is–although of course aware of Esther as a character–ignorant of Esther’s narrative” (p. 61). In The Solitary House, the third-person narrator appears to be contemporary with readers today, often referring to “we…now,” and inserting references that post-date the time period of the narrated story, for example, mentions of “Flanders fields” (World War I), the “Baroness of Holland Park” (detective author P.D. James), “the very model of a modern teenage geek” (colloquialism of today, with a hint of Gilbert and Sullivan), and “we would call it post-traumatic stress” (from modern psychology). Also deftly managed is Hester’s first-person narration, which is helpfully set off in a different typeface; it draws upon the notorious quirks of Dickens’s Esther Summerson (e.g., her combination of modesty and self-congratulation, her lack of self-awareness), but Hester manages in the end to tell a story quite her own (which I won’t reveal). Mr. Jarndyce has morphed into a “Mr. Jarvis” and, as with Hester, his character is both recognizable and different.  Only in the combination of these two narrative threads do we discover the purport of a mystery which turns out to have some very grisly features–not for the squeamish.  It has some themes in common with Anthony Horowitz’s recent authorized Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The House of Silk–a likeness which tells as much about the moral concerns of the 21st-century as it does about their Victorian inspirations.  Yet The Solitary House is firmly grounded in its Victorian sense of place, whether the setting is a lonely country house, Tom-all-Alone’s, Seven Dials, or “Cook’s” rag-and-bone shop.

Pastiche stands alongside the critical essay as an alternative means not only to explore structural devices, but also to underscore character. The way Shepherd has introduced and developed Inspector Bucket pays tribute to Dickens and to the crucial role the so-called “New Police” force was playing in Dickens’s life and thought at the time he wrote Bleak House.  It is often noted that one Inspector Charles Field was the prototype for Bucket, even down to the habit of emphasizing his points with a very mobile “forefinger.” Dickens wrote, in his magazine Household Words, about an evening spent “On Duty with Inspector Field” and along with other similar pieces, these show Dickens’s high regard for the profession of detective which had only become an official part of the police force in 1842, ten years before he wrote Bleak House.  In his excellent book, Dickens and Crime, Philip Collins remarks on the “laudatory, indeed awestruck” tone of the Household Words articles on the police, and cites “the contrast between his [Dickens’s] admiration for the police and his contempt for, or indifference toward, other public functionaries–politicians, magistrates, officers in the armed services, civil servants and local government officials” (196). Collins surmises that Dickens felt comfortable with detectives, who usually came from lower class origins, although they moved in all circles of society. Further, he admired their intelligence and energy and their habit of bringing matters to swift completion, if possible, rather than dithering–again, qualities the indefatigable author possessed.

In The Solitary House, Inspector Bucket becomes involved with a new mystery (although the problem of “my Lady Dedlock” is apparently going on in parallel, off-stage). But is he the same man? It is one of the delightful puzzles of this novel to discover the true character of Bucket in Shepherd’s re-imagining of this singular figure in the annals of early detective fiction.

I hope that reading The Solitary House will put many readers on the trail of Bleak House as well, but as I’ve said, this new mystery works confidently on its own, and can be read with pleasure even if one hasn’t read Bleak House.  Shepherd shows a sure hand in the management of incident and suspense. As witness to this, I’ll mention that after coming to the end of one of her chapters, “Bell Yard,” I looked up and had the delicious sensation, precious to inveterate readers, of realizing that I had been completely involved and had forgotten that I was reading. This was just one such occasion in a literary mystery worthy of its illustrious forebears.

References

  1. Chesterton, G. K. Chesterton on Dickens (Intro. by Michael Slater). London: J. M. Dent, 1992.
  2. Collins, Philip. Dickens and Crime (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
  3. Dickens, Charles. Bleak House (Ed. by G. Ford and S. Monod). New York: Modern Library, 1985. (Original work published serially from 1852-53)
  4. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 1, Household Words, Vol I, No. 18, 409 (July 27, 1850).
  5. Dickens, Charles. “A Detective Police Party,” Pt. 2, Household Words, Vol I, No. 20, 457 (Aug 10, 1850).
  6. Dickens, Charles. “On Duty with Inspector Field,” Household Words, Vol III, No. 64, 265 (June 14, 1851).
  7. Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens: The Illustrated edtion (abridged by Holly Furneaux). New York: Sterling, 2011. (Original work published in 3 vols. in 1872-74; full text online at http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-Forster.html)
  8. Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012. Insight Editions, 2011. [Chap. 25, “Dickens and Detectives” has a nice little section on Inspector Field]
  9. Hawthorne, Jeremy. Bleak House (Critics Debate series). Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.
  10. “We Mean Nothing But a Little Amusement,” http://austensmansfield.wordpress.com/category/charles-maddox/ [A nice blog article on Charles Maddox and the “private theatricals” in Mansfield Park]

*Note: FTC Disclosure. I received a free advance copy of The Solitary House from the publisher, as a prize randomly drawn from entries in a contest on the author’s website.

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Lazarillo de Tormes: A Precursor of Don Quixote

14 Mar

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The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (trans. by W. S. Merwin; intro. by Juan Goytisolo). New York: New York Review of Books, 2005.

In the Spanish novella The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, Lazaro tells the story of his life, or rather unwinds the string of “fortunes and adversities” he experienced in the service of a series of difficult masters. He is the picaro,  and the genre which his story inaugurated is the picaresque.  Authorship is unknown but the book was published in Spain and the Netherlands in 1554. Satirizing certain church figures and their abuses, it was banned and listed by the Inquisition.  Here is one of its early title pages, from Burgos. 

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Lazaro’s story runs only 118 pages in poet W. S. Merwin’s adept 1962 translation; in one or two delectable gulps, one can easily digest a work that is rewarding in itself and also one of the major precursors of Don QuixoteLazaro’s parents were often in trouble themselves, so the boy had to leave his mother’s home early and manage as best he could as the servant of a blind beggar.  This man beat him and taught him how to survive in a world that only seemed to offer similar treatment whatever the station of those doling it out. After barely escaping this first master with his life, he serves, in turn, a priest, a squire, a friar, a seller of indulgences (also known as a pardoner), a chaplain, and a constable.  His third master, the squire, is the kindest and also the most important in terms of the story’s legacy for literature. 

The squire is a penniless and starving nobleman and, as his servant, Lazaro covers for his master’s down-at-heels condition and begs door-to-door to obtain food for them both.  In their conversations, we have the germ of Don Quixote and Sancho, the impractical hidalgo and his more sensible companion.

“Lazaro, it’s late, … Let’s get along as best we can, and tomorrow, once the daylight is here, God will be good to us. I’m all by myself so I hadn’t got anything laid in; I’ve been eating out for the last three days. But now we’ll have to make other arrangements.”

“Oh, as for me, sir,” I said, “set your mind at rest. I’m capable of going without food for a night, or even longer if necessary.”

“You’ll live longer and keep your health better,” he answered. “Because as we were saying, there’s nothing in the world like eating little to make you live long.”

“If that’s the way of it,” I said to myself, “I’ll live forever, because I’ve kept that rule religiously, and for that matter I expect I’ll have the bad luck to keep it for the rest of my life.” (The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes, pp. 62-63)

But whereas Lazaro moves on alone, to suffer more mishaps with new employers, Cervantes makes his pair of Don Quixote and Sancho undergo most adventures as a unit, confronting the villains and tricksters they meet on the road as a team.

 

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Don Quixote is not a picaresque novel, nor is its hero a picaro, any more than it is a straightforward chivalric romance, the other genre that Alonso Quexana addled his brains with and Cervantes used, parodied, and transformed.  Cervantes’ novel expands and defies genre; it is too self-conscious for romance and too subtle in conception for picaresque.  Lazarillo de Tormes is specifically mentioned in chapter XXII of the First Part of Don Quixote, by Gines  de Pasamonte, one of the chain gang of galley slaves that Don Quixote has freed. Gines announces that he is writing The Life of Gines de Pasamonte, and brags that, “It is so good, that it’s too bad for Lazarillo de Tormes and all other books of that genre that have been or will be written” (Don Quixote, trans. Edith Grossman, p. 169).

If the list of Lazaro’s masters reminds you of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, this is no accident, since Lazarillo de Tormes represents a link between medieval tales and the novels which were soon to follow, beginning with Don Quixote. As Juan Goytisolo points out in his Introduction to Lazarillo, Lazaro learns and changes over the course of his adventures, unlike the protagonists of medieval tales who tended to illustrate fixed traits (e.g., patient Griselda).

Don Quixote is often cited, quite rightly, as an important influence on Mark Twain, but Twain’s greatest work also bears comparison with Lazarillo. Huckleberry Finn tells his story in the first person, as Lazaro does, and Huck is closer to the hungry, penniless boy Lazaro than to the courtly, lovestruck Don.  However, when Huck joins forces with Jim, their partnership both pays tribute to Cervantes’ immortal duo and gives new dimension to the pairing of unfortunate heroes.

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