Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: You Shall Know Them, by Vercors

Old Bestseller Review: You Shall Know Them, by Vercors

a review by Rich Horton

Vercors was the pseudonym adopted by French artist and engraver Jean Bruller (1902-1991) for his writing during the French Resistance to German occupation in World War II. Bruller had been invalided out of the French Army prior to the war, then quickly injured when he returned to action, so he turned to writing an inspirational novella, The Silence of the Sea (1942). His work was published by a clandestine press he cofounded, Les Éditions de Minuit -- which was dangerous in itself: his editor for the press was executed by the Nazis. He also served as a messenger for the Resistance.

After the war he continued writing fiction, and continued to publish as Vercors. He published in the neighborhood of 20 books, with a fair amount of success. His name is known to SF fans with some knowledge of the field's history primarily for his 1961 novel Sylva, which became the first work originally published in a foreign language to be on the Hugo shortlist, in 1963 (for the 1962 English translation.) (To this day the only other novels nominated for a Hugo that were first published in another language are Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem (which won) and Death's End (jokes about the prose in L. Ron Hubbard's Black Genesis notwithstanding).) Vercors wrote other SF novels besides Sylva, including Colères (The Insurgents), and You Shall Know Them.

You Shall Know Them was originally published in 1952 as Les Animaux Dénaturés. The English translation appeared in 1956. As with most of Vercors books, the translation was done by his wife, Ruth Barisse. The English version also appeared under the titles The Murder of the Missing Link (a rather literal representation of the main point of the novel) and Borderline, which also pretty well represents the ideas of the novel. You Shall Know Them, however (from Matthew 7:16) is a much subtler and more serious title. To add yet one more title, the book was made into a 1970 film, Skullduggery, starring Burt Reynolds. (Mark Tiedemann has seen the film, and says it's better than you'd expect, though Reynolds complained that the director ruined a pretty good script.)

You Shall Know Them is a distinctly philosophical novel, with a satirical edge, and some very interesting ideas. It is marred by some quite racist passages, even though its central message is mostly anti-racist. The novel also is centrally concerned with anthropology, particularly the ancestors of modern humans, and as such its science is terribly out of date. That said, I think Bruller gets the science as of 1952 pretty much correct. Alas, he mentions Piltdown Man -- a hoax that was exposed only in 1953!

The book opens with a shocking scene -- a doctor is called to a man's home, where he is shown the corpse of a newborn child. The man tells the doctor that he has killed the child with strychnine, and insists that he verify the death, and call the police. The doctor notices some strange features to the child -- apelike features -- but he writes the death certificate, and calls the police.

We flash back a couple of years, to the romance of the murderer of the newborn child, a journalist named Douglas Templemore, and a writer named Frances Doran. They meet cute, and soon are spending a great deal of time together. (This is in London -- and indeed England is the main setting of the novel (with a significant side trip to Papua New Guinea), despite the author being French.) They convince themselves they are just friends -- they are both too sensible to fall in love -- until Douglas decides to accompany his anthropologist friends the Greames to New Guinea. (Mrs. Greame, significantly, is a girl he grew up with who surprised everyone by marrying a much older man instead of Douglas.) At this time Frances and Douglas abandon pretence and admit they are in love, though now they must wait a year or so until Douglas returns.

They are in New Guinea to investigate some intriguing hominid bones a colleague has found. But they find something much more fascinating -- living hominids, which they eventually call Paranthropus, or "Tropi" for short. These have a language, though very simple, and they make tools (hand axes), and they bury their dead. Over time, indeed, they are portrayed as very nearly straddling any plausible line between "human" and "animal". (To be sure, it is acknowledged that any such line is hard to place.)

The story gets out, of course, and then it turns out that the area the Tropis live in is owned by an Australian mining concern. The mines are played out, but the CEO has another plan -- use the Tropis as very cheap labor, to corner the market for finished Australian wool. After all, by law, his company owns these "animals" outright. Douglas and his company are appalled, and they try to get the Tropis declared legally human. But this seems legally difficult. The next plan is to artificially inseminate some of the Tropi females with human sperm -- all Douglas', as it turns out -- which leads to several live births. But this is not conclusive either -- for what about mules? (Or many other cross-species hybrids.) Douglas' last chance attempt is what we saw at the opening -- to murder one of his children, and confess, so that the legal system will convict him of murder, implying that the Tropis must be human.

This leads to an extended trial, presided over by a wise judge. Numerous arguments are advanced on both sides, all converging on the notion that the Tropis are on the exact dividing line between humans and animals. (Indeed, it is suggested, some Tropis are on one side, some on the other.) This is where the book advances some pretty offensive notions -- suggesting that there is an hierarchy of human races, some of which are more nearly animal than others. (The book is ardently opposed to different treatment of the so-called "lesser races" to be sure, but the distinctions are still quite blithely advanced.) On the personal side, all this is quite wrenching to Frances in particular, who has married Douglas finally, and who supports him despite some misgivings. (Douglas' affair with Mrs. Greame is an issue as well!)

The resolution involves some legal hair-splitting, and a fairly logical resolution to the issue of Douglas' murder charge. (It was the solution I had come up with myself.) Frances' reaction to the whole thing is pretty well portrayed.

It's a pretty interesting novel. The philosophical arguments are intriguing, a mix of wrongheadedness (in my view) with some interesting dilemmas. (Certainly these are the kind of arguments that (understandably, really) drive many people to vegetarianism.) There is a strong satirical side to the depiction of the wider public's reaction to the whole affair. The characters are well-done too. I liked it, and I think it still deserves attention, albeit as rather a period piece.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Old Bestseller: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Old Bestseller Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

a review by Rich Horton

I suppose one doesn't think of a novel like Middlemarch as a "bestseller", but in fact it sold very well when it first appeared (if perhaps not as well as Eliot had hoped). And of course it has sold steadily ever since. This was before there was any formal bestseller list, but make no mistake, authors were well aware of their general sales figures, and usually pretty involved in them.

That doesn't really matter any more, to be sure. Middlemarch was fairly well received critically, at first, and praised by writers like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (the latter with some reservations). Still, it wasn't until the 1940s that its reputation began to expand -- to the point that it is often called the greatest novel in English. My feeling is that at the very top level there is no way to choose a "greatest" novel from any number of candidates -- but, without question, Middlemarch is a very great novel and deserves to be in the conversation.

"George Eliot", as most people know, was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). She used the pseudonym in order to ensure that her work was treated seriously, and perhaps also to separate it from her critical work under her own name. She wrote seven novels, as well as shorter stories and some poetry. Her poetry seems to have been well regarded at the time but I must say I wasn't even aware she had done much in that field, so it doesn't seem to have survived all that well. Her personal life was also scandalous -- she lived with the married philosopher George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death -- and that may have been another reason to separate her writing name from her own name, though the pseudonym seems to have been pretty open for a long time.

I myself had only read a few of her shorter works -- the shortish novel Silas Marner, and two shorter stories, "Brother Jacob" and "The Lifted Veil". I enjoyed them all and expected to proceed eventually to a more major novel, but it took me a while to get around to it. Indeed, I acquired copies, over time, of Romola, Daniel Deronda, and Felix Holt the Radical ... but soon it became clear that Middlemarch was the appropriate choice.

I will note, by the way, that the edition I ended up buying, a Barnes and Noble Classics trade paperback, is quite poorly done. It appears to have been OCR'd from another edition, and there are numerous typical OCR typos: for example, "my clearest" instead of "my dearest". The binding is also, not surprising, a bit inadequate for a book so large. There is some additional editorial material: an introduction by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, endnotes by Megan McDaniel, a selection of roughly contemporaneous extracts from reviews and other writing about the book. These are all decently enough done if nothing special. My fault, to be sure, for being lured by the very low price (only $5) -- I would suggest a sort of Gresham's Law of book editions might apply ("Bad [editions] drive out good").

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was published 1872 in eight parts -- an unusual choice (three volumes was the more normal format) occasioned by its length -- it is about 330,000 words long, some 800 pages in my edition. The eight parts are of roughly similar length, about 40,000 words apiece. Eliot composed in between 1869 and 1871, beginning with two separate projects: "Miss Brooke" and "Middlemarch", but she realized that the two pieces would work better together.

The novel intertwines the stories of a great variety of characters. Miss Brooke is Dorothea, the most important character, a young woman of good if not aristocratic family. She and her sister Celia are being raised by her rather dithering uncle Arthur Brooke. Dorothea, a beautiful, pious, and intelligent woman, is courted by the neighboring baronet, Sir James Chettam, but her serious cast of mind and desire to do scholarly work leads her to the terribly inappropriate choice of Mr. Casaubon, a much older clergyman engaged in a lifelong attempt at finding the "key to all mythologies". (Celia ends up marrying Sir James.) The story of Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon, and Mr. Casaubon's impoverished cousin Will Ladislaw, is one of the two central threads; and turns much on Dorothea's anguished realization that Casaubon is a hopeless failure and a terrible husband, and on Will's feelings for Dorothea, which she is too virtuous to notice, though Mr. Casaubon notices enough to alter his will in an odious way.

The other thread concerns a new and idealistic physician, Tertius Lydgate, who comes to Middlemarch to start a practice and, he hopes, to engage in significant research, for he has modern ideas about medicine. Lydgate, who is of very good family but who has little money, falls for the very pretty and very shallow Rosamond Vincy, daughter of the town's mayor. Their thread follows their courtship and marriage, and how the financial stress due to Rosamond's demands and Lydgate's weakness poisons their marriage, and leads Lydgate into a faintly compromising relationship with Mr. Bulstrode, the religiously fanatical local banker.

Other significant threads twine around these stories. One concerns Bulstrode's checkered past, and his horror of having that past revealed, which leads him to the moral equivalent of murder, a death which will also stain Lydgate's reputation. Another thread involves Rosamond's brother Fred, a rather irresolute young man who has been unsuccessfully studying to be a minister, a profession for which he has no aptitude. Fred is in love with the plain, intelligent, and very upright Mary Garth, who is acting as companion to a much older relative, the very rich Peter Featherstone, who, it is supposed, will leave Fred a significant bequest on his impending death.

One more thread concerns Dorothea's uncle, Mr. Brooke, and his unfortunate decision to stand for Parliament as a Whig, in support of the proposed Reform Bill. Mr. Brooke is perhaps the funniest character in the book, which while not a comedy is often quite witty. Mr. Brooke stand for improved treatment of tenants by landlords, apparently unaware that he is regarded as an awful landlord. (One of Dorothea's passions is better housing for tenant farmers, and she goes to the extent of making architectural designs for new cottages. Sir James is willing to entertain her ideas, but Mr. Brooke seems to see no need.)

There are a great many more characters: the very honest and financially impractical Caleb Garth, (Mary's father): in essence a civil engineer; the clever if rather mean Mrs. Cadwallader (the rector's wife, and another funny character); the highly intelligent clergyman Camden Farebrother, hopelessly in love with Mary Garth but compelled by his principles to help Fred court her; Mr. Featherstone's varied pack of money-grubbing relatives; and many more less significant individuals.

All these stories weave in and out of the novel, intersecting nicely. Various deaths drive the plot, as well as a couple of intrigues involving wills. A key if somewhat understated theme is the place of women in this society and their limited opportunities for agency and power. Dorothea is by far the strongest character in the novel -- a bit of a Mary Sue perhaps: beautiful and virtuous and intelligent and (as Greg Feeley pointed out to me) "ardent"; but she (apparently happily) accepts a fate as wife and mother and behind the scenes helpmeet to her eventual husband, who, though a good enough man is quite a bit less impressive than her. (And she would have happily done the same for Mr. Casaubon had he the grace to accept.) Somewhat similarly Mary Garth is smarter and more energetic than Fred Vincy. The case in which the man is stronger still has ambiguities, for while Rosamond is selfish and and obstinate and sneaky, and Lydgate is truly intelligent, even perhaps brilliant, how much of her character is formed by lack of opportunity, and emphasis on her beauty as her prime asset; which how much of their difficulties are caused by Lydgate's own moral failures?

The story is tremendously moving by the end; though there are really no earth-shattering tragedies -- nothing like the ending of, say, The Mill on the Floss. Indeed, looked at one way, all the major characters have fairly happy endings. (To a rather lesser extent in the case of Lydgate, to be sure.) But events seem trending in a much worse way as the climax approaches, and I found the critical quiet last meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond to be stunning, and it had me in tears. The characters, as I have suggested, are beautifully drawn -- the minor characters ring true in their brief appearances, voices all sharply realized, and the major characters are portrayed with particular convincing exactitude.

And the prose -- I found it quite lovely. This is Victorian prose, long sentences and long paragraphs. But all elegant, and logical, and carefully balanced. The third person omniscient narrative voice is every present, very smart, indeed, I would say, very wise. This indeed becomes right away one of my favorite novels of all time.

Perhaps some extended quotes will be a good way to finish.

Casaubon on his attempts to have feelings for Dorothea: "Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was. As in droughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him; and he concluded that the poets had much exaggerated the force of masculine passion."

(Indeed, I do wonder whether Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon ever had sexual relations.)

On Mary Garth: "Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required."

Will Ladislaw and his friend the German painter Adolf Naumann encounter Dorothea in Rome: "They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble; a breathing blooming girl, whose form, not shamed by the Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish gray drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backward from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair. She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor."

Ladislaw on Dorothea: "Whatever else she might be, she was not disagreeable. She was not coldly clever and indirectly satirical, but adorably simple and full of feeling. She was an angel beguiled. It would be a unique delight to wait and watch for the melodious fragments in which her heart and soul came forth so directly and ingenuously. The Æolian harp again came into his mind."

Caleb Garth's philosophy: "Caleb Garth often shook his head in meditation on the value, the indispensable might of that myriad-headed, myriad-handed labor by which the social body is fed, clothed, and housed. It had laid hold of his imagination in boyhood. the echoes of the great hammer where roof or keel were a-making, the signal-shouts of the workmen, the roar of the furnace, the thunder and plash of the engine, were a sublime music to him; the felling and lading of timber, and the huge trunk vibrating star-like in the distance along the highway, the crane at work on the wharf, the piled-up produce in warehouses, the precision and variety of muscular effort wherever exact work had to be turned out, -- all these sights of his youth had acted on him as poetry without the aid of the poets, had made a philosophy for him without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology."

There are many more, and I know I have not found again some of the very best passages.