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Summer of Classics - The Recap

As I mentioned earlier, my tardiness in starting my Summer of Classics required me to take great liberties with the calendar, which is why I'm just now finishing my "summer" in October. Here are my thoughts on what I read this year.

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
This purported classic should have been exactly that - a timeless story of a single act of youthful cowardice, public humiliation and guilt, momentary redemption and sudden failure, and a final succumbing to fate in pursuit of honor. But the story's many high points ultimately are buried in chronic digression, overly ornate language and a completely unrealistic "first person minor" narration. Again and again Lord Jim literally made my eyes glaze over and drove me into sleep, and I finally finished the book with relief instead of the exhilaration befitting a true classic. (Related posts: 1 2 3)

Nikolai Gogol: The Overcoat
This one, by contrast, is a classic, albeit a very strange one. What begins as a sadly realistic tale of a lonely clerk and his quest for dignity before an indifferent and often cruel world, along with a dead-on satire of stifling government bureaucracy, morphs abruptly into a ghost story involving one and perhaps two restless spirits. Gogol died young, way back in 1852, long before the era of the author interview, and based on the widely varying interpretations I've seen he seems to have taken the ultimate meaning of his story to his grave. Which leaves The Overcoat very much subject to interpretation, with just the sort of open-endedness that marks some of my favorite fiction. This one really makes you think. (Related posts: 1 2)

Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor
I've come to realize that just because a book was written by a classic author doesn't make the book a classic. This one is really making me reconsider my vow to finally tackle Moby-Dick, although several people are strongly urging me to still do just that. We'll see. (Related posts: 1)

Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye
After the parched trudge through Melville, Chandler's noir classic proved to be the perfect palate cleanser. Chandler tells a great story and tells it extremely well, keeps the reader guessing which of the loose narrative threads will lead to the solution, and despite describing all of those angles in such depth, seemingly to the point of leaving no room for any surprises, still throws in a twist at the end that I absolutely never saw coming. A truly great book. (Related posts: 1)

Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road
Caldwell's brutally grim novel of Georgia tenant farmers was intended as social protest, per the related entry in The New Georgia Encyclopedia: "Erskine Caldwell's sympathy for these people and his outrage at the conditions in which they lived were real, and his novel was meant to be a work of social protest. But he also refused to sentimentalize their poverty or to cast his characters as inherently noble in their sufferings, as so many other protest works did." That's no exaggeration - despite Caldwell's intent, the Lester family and their cohorts are drawn so savagely that it's hard to generate much sympathy for their plight, and in fact even makes it as easy to attribute their situation to their own ignorance, arrogance and laziness as to the cruelties of capitalism. Which is not to say the book isn't good - it's very good - but that its author probably didn't generate nearly the protest and outrage that he hoped for. (Related posts: 1)

James Agee and Walker Evans: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Agee's legendary but very frustrating prose veers from documentary, almost clinical cataloging of the minutiae of Alabama tenant farmers' lives, to arcane polemics and then to passages of stunning lyrical beauty. Over and over and over again, over nearly 500 pages. I could have done without all of the polemics and much of the cataloging, which would have left 150 or 200 pages of stunning prose and one of the great works of non-fiction ever written. As it is, it's still a strong book. And Evans' photographs are simply beautiful, and as spare and restrained as Agee's prose should have been. (Related posts: 1 2)

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow
A lovely and masterfully crafted portrait of three families, vividly set in small-town Illinois during the 1920s. While at first I thought the multitude of characters was too much for such a brief novel, upon further reflection I am marvelling at how Maxwell was able to tell so much in so few pages. If it's possible for a 135-page book to be an "epic", this is the one. A definite winner.

Hits: The Overcoat, The Long Goodbye, Tobacco Road, So Long, See You Tomorrow
Misses: Lord Jim, Billy Budd
Tossup: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

October 10, 2008 in Books | Permalink