Thursday, February 26, 2015

Old Bestsellers: A Diversity of Creatures, by Rudyard Kipling

Old Bestsellers: A Diversity of Creatures, by Rudyard Kipling

A review by Rich Horton

I have no idea if this was a bestseller, but Rudyard Kipling was a very popular writer, so doubtless this sold nicely enough. A Diversity of Creatures was published in 1917, but most of the stories predate World War I, and it shows. The book resembles the just preceding adult collection, Actions and Reactions, more than it does the postwar collections such as Limits and Renewals. It does include one of his all-time great stories, "Mary Postgate", and one other very fine story, the odd SF piece "As Easy as A. B. C." Perhaps not surprisingly these close and open the collection. The other fairly famous story here is "The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat".

I won't go into my usual detail about Kipling's biography: it's pretty familiar. Born in 1865, died in 1936. He had his foot in three countries: England, where his loyalties lay and where he lived more than half his life; India, where he was born and spent much of his youth and young manhood, and where he made his reputation and set most of his early stories; and the United States: he married an American woman, and they lived in Vermont for about four years. Kipling won the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature (before much of his very best work appeared, which is not to say that the stories up until then, including his best-known novel, Kim (1901), weren't often outstanding). He is one of my favorite writers, and a great example of the fact that you can disagree profoundly with many of an author's views and still love the work. (A maxim many would do well to remember.)

The most obvious recurring theme in A Diversity of Creatures is revenge -- indeed, this is a central theme in much of Kipling, and not always in a good way. Quite often the revenge is by characters Kipling appears to approve of against hapless or awkward antagonists, and seems out of proportion to the original offense. In "The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat", a group of people in an early motorcar are caught in a sort of speed trap, clearly a revenue grab by a local Baronet. They are newspaper people, as well as an M. P. and (in another car) a theatre man. They get together to subject the village in which they were mistreated to humiliation by such means as arranging for them to be hoodwinked into voting that the Earth is flat after a presentation by a fake member of the Flat Earth Society. That annoyed me enough on first reading to put me off the story entirely, but on rereading it this time I realized, for one thing, how funny the story can be; and, secondly, that the story takes an ambiguous view of the appropriateness of the "revenge". In many ways this is really about the sometimes dangerous power of the press. (It also introduces a character, singer Vidal Benzaguen, who shows up later in another revenge story, one of Kipling's very greatest, "Dayspring Mishandled", from Limits and Renewals. Kipling was wont to reuse characters, even minor ones, as we shall see again in this book.)

In "The Honours of War", a "Stalky as an adult" story, a rather silly young officer too much taken up with book-learning is the target. The story, from 1911, defends old-style traditional officers and military values -- and by the time the book was published surely it was already clear how horribly these were faring. (The following poem, "The Children", is a wrenching lament for young men dead in war -- whether it was written in response to WWI I don't know.) Another revenge story is "Friendly Brook", in which a drunk blackmails (more or less) a country couple who have adopted his child by threatening to assert his parental rights. He ends up drowning in the title brook, clearly a response of a "friendly" entity to the threat to the brook's local couple. "The Edge of the Evening" is a pre-war spy story. Laughton Zigler, the American entrepreneur who showed up previously in "The Captive" (Traffics and Discoveries), has now married and rents an English estate. The narrator character runs into him and comes up for a weekend, at which he hears a story of a German plane crashlanding on the estate, and Zigler and company (half by accident) killing the occupants and sending the plane off to harmlessly ditch in the Channel. In "The Vortex", a foolish representative of one of the Empire's Dominions, spouting rot about going it alone independent from England, etc., is given his comeuppance via a drive in a motorcar, some bees, and an accident. "In the Presence" tells two stories of Indian soldiers: in one, a pair of Sikh brothers take vengeance on the locals who take advantage of their absence in the British Army, in the other, a group of Goorkhas faithfully mourn the death of the King.

There is also a Pyecroft story, "The Horse Marines", about mishaps with a motorcar stumbling into a military exercise. "'My Son's Wife'" is one of those Kipling stories where a city boy discovers the value of country life and country people. In this case a foolish young radical bohemian sort ("He had suffered from the disease of the century", the story opens), depressed after his free-loving girlfriend dumps him, inherits his aunt's estate. At first he plans to sell it, but the attractions of hard work, hunting, and a local girl all work to turn him into a man of the land -- and a Tory too, no doubt! "'Swept and Garnished'" is one of the two war stories, a ghost story in which a German woman is visited by the shades of the children of a French village overrun by the German army. It's a pretty powerful piece. "Regulus" is another Stalky story, though he's not a main character. It's set in school, and concerns a prim and virtuous young man getting in some trouble and being compared to the Roman hero Regulus.

"In the Same Boat" is a tale of drug addiction. Two young people are treated for addiction to sleeping pills by the same doctor, and they support each other on train trips as they try to go cold turkey. Both have terrible dreams that drove them to their addictions. The source of the dreams are eventually revealed, and give the story a slightly supernatural edge. The two seem well suited to each other, but one point of the story is that even though they become friendly they can never love each other -- perhaps the knowledge of each other's weakness is too much for them. "The Dog Hervey" is about an old maid who gets a rather mangy dog as a pet, and how this unlovely beast finally leads her to romance.

Now to the cream of the crop. "As Easy as A.B.C." is a sequel to "With the Night Mail". It is set in 2065. The world by this time has become a mostly libertarian paradise, with a declining population and a horror of invasion of privacy. One form of invasion of privacy, in this formulation, is democracy, with its imposure of majority will. Paradoxically (or not), the generally libertarian nature of this society is maintained by the Draconian rule of "The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated, body of a few score persons", as the introductory paragraph has it. In this story some members of the A.B.C. are traveling to Chicago, where it seems a few idlers and no-accounts have been assembling and trying to force votes on various issues. The other locals, horrified, call in the A.B.C. demanding that they take over -- if they don't, they say, people might get killed. And so the A.B.C., rather drastically it seemed to me, takes things in hand -- though with magic tech that supposedly won't actually really hurt anyone. Politics aside (the views put forth are, I think, purposely exaggerated for effect), I really liked the story. It seems very fresh, very science-fictional and well thought out, for all that it dates to 1912. It is probably my favorite of Kipling's "Science Fiction" stories.

The title character of "Mary Postgate" is a spinster hired to be companion to a well-off woman, Miss Fowler. Miss Fowler's nephew Wynn is orphaned, and she and Mary Postgate more or less raise him, until he joins the nascent Flying Corps at the outbreak of war. Soon he dies in a training accident. Through all this we gather something of Mary Postgate's relationship to him: clearly she dotes on the boy while he treats her with casual disrespect that one supposes includes a reluctant admixture of affection. Mary Postgate suffers in silence through the funeral, and the cleaning up of his effects. The two women decide to burn some of Wynn's belongings, and as Mary is working on his there is another accident -- a building collapses, and a local child is killed. At about the same time an airplane crashes near the incinerator where Mary Postgate is burying Wynn's effects. Mary immediately (and almost certainly erroneously) decides that the airplane had dropped a bomb, causing the building collapse. When she finds the downed pilot, she refuses him any help (though he speaks in French, albeit possibly German-accented French), instead guarding him until he dies -- an event she reacts to in a stunning scene in which she seems perhaps to come to orgasm as the man dies.

It's an odd odd story, and Mary Postgate is one of Kipling's stranger characters. You might think that the story, written in about 1915, in the midst of the War, should be read straight -- that Mary is simply doing her bit for the War effort, killing her German, as it were, while mourning her lost surrogate son, who died as a result of the War. But everywhere this is undermined. Mary's actions are hardly heroic, and her orgasmic reaction to his death is distasteful. The German pilot isn't even necessarily German -- he could be French, an ally. Mary assumes he dropped a bomb on the village and killed a child -- but that does not seem likely. Mary's beloved Wynn does not die in action but in a training accident. To me the story seems rather to be concerned with the tragic waste of war, with the danger of excessive vengefulness, and with one particular character: the spinster Mary Postgate.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Old Bestsellers: The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter De Vries

The Blood of the Lamb, by Peter De Vries

A review by Rich Horton

As I have said in one form or another here, this blog's main aims are to a) examine books from at least 50 years ago (and preferably rather more) that sold well in their time; and b) to bring unjustly forgotten books to (minimally, alas!) wider attention. Sometimes posts do more of the one, some more of the other. (For example, some "Old Bestsellers" pretty much deserve to be forgotten!) And some, of course, are really about neither category. This week my aim was more at bringing a somewhat unjustly forgotten book (and author) to wider attention ... though the book in question likely sold nicely enough. But I find, searching the Web, that this book, and this author, beginning perhaps a decade ago, are quite often written about, with the same intention: to restore a sadly neglected writer, and his consensus best book, to our attention. So perhaps he's not that neglected after all? But ... I still sense he is, to some extent.

Peter De Vries (1910-1993) was one of the great American comic novelists of the latter half of the 20th Century. While never, I think, precisely a bestseller, he was a popular writer through the '50s and '60s. His most enduring theme was suburban adultery, already expressed in his first "mature" novel, The Tunnel of Love (1954). (He wrote three earlier novels that he largely repudiated.) This theme seemed to lose its force -- perhaps through repetition, perhaps because of societal change, perhaps because De Vries lost energy -- and his novels after the late '60s, though still fitfully funny, were also at times tedious. Four of his novels became movies, perhaps most notably Pete'n'Tillie (1972, based on the 1968 short novel Witch's Milk). De Vries was also a long-time editor at the New Yorker, having previously worked at Poetry. He served in the OSS during the War. All in all, a very impressive career. And for all that, he seems on the road to being forgotten already. Indeed, at the time of his death, all his novels were out of print. (About 10 years ago, the estimable University of Chicago press reprinted a few of his novels (The Blood of the Lamb included), so I think it has become easier to find his work.)

I read a great many of De Vries' novels 15 or 20 years ago, with tremendous enjoyment. My particular favorites are The Tunnel of Love (1954), The Mackerel Plaza (1958), and the book at hand, The Blood of the Lamb (1961). Also well regarded are the diptych The Cat's Pajamas/Witch's Milk (1968), Reuben, Reuben (1964), and another linked pair, Comfort Me With Apples (1956) and The Tents of Wickedness (1959) ... the latter composed of chapters quite brilliantly parodying well-known writers of that time.

De Vries was born to Dutch immigrants in Chicago, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church (technically, the Christian Reformed Church of America). This is an explicitly Calvinist sect (much more so, it seems to me, than the largest American denomination in the Calvinist lineage, the United Church of Christ (especially the Congregationalist branch of same)). (I visited a Reformed Church of America church a few years ago, and was struck even then by the predominance of Vans and "oe"s among the names listed in the bulletin.) De Vries attended Northwestern, but graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI, a well-respected college sponsored by the CRC. (By rank coincidence, I met two unrelated graduates of Calvin within days of reading that detail of De Vries' biography.)

The Blood of the Lamb is narrated by Don Wanderhope, who shares significant elements of De Vries' biography -- he too was born to Dutch immigrants in Chicago, and raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, and attended Northwestern. His father is first an iceman, then a garbageman. His beloved older brother Louie dies of tuberculosis at about 20, leaving young Don a legacy of skepticism about religion. Don later gets tuberculosis himself, leading to a critical interlude at a church-run sanatorium. (In De Vries' case, it was his sister who died of tuberculosis ... and while his father did not go insane, he did suffer from depression, and did a stint at a church-run sanatorium>)

The general tone of the novel is at first comic, De Vriesian, one might say, but one quickly notices that Wanderhope's life is full of loss. His brother dies. Then, at the sanatorium, he falls in love (his one true love, it seems) with another patient, who then dies. His father goes insane (requiring Don to take over the family garbage business). Before Don's stay in the sanatorium, he had, er, compromised the virtue of Greta, another girl in his church, and was at the point of marrying her, but they broke off after his illness. He meets her again at his father's asylum -- he is accused of having driven her mad by "ruining" her, and agrees to marry her (even though he is blameless as to her condition). Wanderhope sells his garbage route and moves to New York to work in advertising, and they have a girl, Carol, before Greta has another nervous breakdown and commits suicide. The woes continue ... his father and mother both die.

But all this is nothing next to the closing of the novel, which is an extended depiction of the horrors of Carol's long losing battle with leukemia, and it is here that the novel moves into another dimension. It is one of the most moving books I have read ... the depiction of a father's love for his daughter is wholly convincing and utterly wrenching. The portraits of other parents in extremis is likewise wrenching, particularly Wanderhope's new friend Stein, a Jewish man with a daughter just Carol's age (they become fast friends: one of the lines that struck me most on this reading was from Stein, looking at Carol and his Rachel: "'Lifelong friends,' said Stein, who gave, and asked, no quarter.") De Vries does not lose his comic touch here, though of course the comedy is, not black but, rather, agonized, as he describes the physicians and their treatments; and his housekeeper, Mrs. Brodhag; and the sometimes silly but never other than human fellow sufferers. There is also much beauty: Wanderhope trying to experience life with his daughter as fully as possible, knowing it will not last. And finally there are the last spasms of Wanderhope's skepticism about religion, his half-hearted attempts to believe at last (hoping, perhaps, that that way might lie some amelioration for Carol's suffering), and finally her granting him absolution, posthumously ... The arguments presented here are never convincing (and perhaps not intended to be so): they are the old sophomoric plaints (all having their root in Louie's arguments: after all, he was a sophomore when he died): the only real argument is purely emotional, and that is where it connects.

Autobiography as an explanation for a novelist's imagination is always a treacherous crutch. It is obvious that Don Wanderhope's history shares a fair amount with that of De Vries (perhaps extended to the War: it is curiously not mentioned at all (one assumes perhaps his illness gave Wanderhope a deferment), but one notes that De Vries never elaborated on his OSS experience (doubtless because it was classified). Still there are differences: Wanderhope was in advertising, not editing and writing like De Vries, other details like their marriages are radically different ... but in the most crucial area, De Vries did draw on his own life for The Blood of the Lamb. His daughter Emily died in 1960 of leukemia. I didn't know this when I first read the book, and it doesn't matter to the text, but it does add another layer of sadness once you have heard of it. (Kingsley Amis, a great admirer of De Vries' work, describes meeting him once (presumably in 1959 when Amis was at Princeton, writing New Maps of Hell) with a seriously ill little girl in tow.)

The Blood of the Lamb is a stunning, moving novel. The rest of his oeuvre, at least until his late decline, is also remarkable, if never as moving as in this book, it is often remarkably funny, and also shadowed, quite serious in its comedy. One could do much worse than to seek out the University of Chicago reprints of his work.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Stormswift, by "Madeleine Brent" (Peter O'Donnell)

Stormswift, by "Madeleine Brent" (Peter O'Donnell)

A review by Rich Horton

Again, this book is not really that old, and not really a bestseller, though I imagine a decent seller at least. But I do sense that just a few years after his death, the author is slipping from the public consciousness a bit.

"Madeleine Brent" is a pseudonym for Peter O'Donnell (1920-2010), by far best known as the author of the Modesty Blaise novels (and comics). These books, about an orphan girl, displaced by the Second World War, who becomes first a criminal and then a spy for the British government, are tremendously enjoyable. (They actually began as a comic strip. The comic strip and the novels have different continuity.)

As Madeleine Brent O'Donnell wrote a number of historical romances, generally featuring a woman in peril who finds resources within herself to make her own way -- and, of course, to eventually win a good man. Apparently he maintained the Brent pseudonym as a secret successfully for some time. The Brent novels were generally quite well received. I saw Stormswift, one of the later Brent novels, from 1984, for $1 at a book sale, and as an admirer of the Modesty Blaise books I figured it was worth a try. And I was on the whole rather pleased.

Stormswift opens in Afghanistan in the 1880s. Jemimah Lawley, the spoiled daughter of a British civil servant who was killed in the Kabul massacre in 1979, has spent the past couple of years in an isolated "kingdom", at first as the "wife" of the local pacha, then as the slave of the local doctor, a Greek/English man who has himself been a captive of the local Kafirs for decades. After her rape by the pacha, who then discarded her after she failed to provide him a child, she has adapted well to being the doctor's assistant, and she is no longer spoiled. But then she is sold to another local pacha -- this one with a reputation for extreme sadism. She decides to escape, and the doctor arranges for her to go in the company of a peddler, Kassim.

Kassim, it turns out, is not what he seems. He hates Jemimah, out of resentment for his obligation to rescue her. But in the end she saves his life -- and she learns that he is actually a British spy posing as an Afghan. And she hears his mysterious delirious reference to "Melanie ... Stormswift ... bitch-goddess".

Jemimah returns to England, only to find that an imposter claiming to be her has taken over her home. She ends up touring the countryside in a Punch and Judy show ... the beginning of a journey that will lead her -- by a series of coincidences (mostly in the end reasonably well explained, I should say) -- to meet once again Kassim, and to learn the secret of Stormswift -- and to learn who her true love is -- and to even help another long lost friend ...

It is certainly in many ways quite preposterous. But it is also great fun. There is no point complaining about the contrivances involved -- they are part of the deal, and "Brent" embraces them thoroughly rather than trying to make this any sort of naturalist novel. I will say that the end is a bit unsatisfying -- Jemimah is put in a wrenching personal situation which ends up resolved very conveniently -- the whole finish is a bit abrupt, really. Still, fun work.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Old Bestsellers: Edmund Dantes, by "Alexander Dumas"

Edmund Dantès, by "Alexander Dumas"

A review by Rich Horton

A short while ago in an antique store I saw this book, Edmund Dantès, subtitled "The Sequel to the Celebrated Count of Monte Cristo", bylined Alexander Dumas. I haven't read much Dumas ... The Three Musketeers, when I was a teen, might be the only one. I know the story of The Count of Monte Cristo, of course, and I've seen a couple of versions in other media. I knew Dumas was prolific (and that he ran a sort of fiction factory, a bit like James Patterson does these day), so I thought it very plausible that he might have written a sequel. So I bought the book ... seemed like a worthwhile thing to try, an obscurer work by a famous author.

Alexandre Dumas was born in Picardy in 1802. His father was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a Marquis and a slave woman. His mother was an innkeeper's daughter. Dumas was his grandmother's family name, adopted by Alexandre's father after a break with his noble father. Alexandre's father was a successful general under Napoleon, but died of cancer in 1806. Dumas's family connections got him a decent position with Louis-Philippe, future King of France. Dumas soon began writing articles and then plays, and after a couple of successes became a full-time writer, and turned to novels. His most significant works appeared in quick succession between 1844 and 1847: The Three Musketeers and its sequels; The Corsican Brothers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas died in 1870.

His son, also illegitimate, also named Alexandre Dumas, became a successful writer as well, best known for La Dame Aux Camellias (or Camille), source material for the opera La Traviata.

Dumas was known, as I said, for running a sort of fiction factory: a variety of assistants helped write his books. The most famous was Auguste Maquet, who suggested the plots and wrote first drafts for a number of Dumas's novels (including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers). Dumas would then rewrite the books, adding dialogue and details and presumably finishing the prose. Maquet later sued Dumas, asking for credit and more money. He got the latter.

But what of this novel, Edmund Dantès? I began it with some optimism, and the opening is at least mildly interesting. Dantès and his beloved Haydee are sailing to Dantès' private island, where they get married and have a boy and a girl. Some ten years later, though, brigands led by one of the men Dantès ruined in his thirst for vengeance attack his house, and kill Haydee. Edmund and his children return to France. And suddenly the novel becomes a political novel. Edmund becomes a representative for Marseilles, and a leading Republican advocate, inveighing against the injustice of the political structure. He writes a popular play. The revolutions of 1848 are approaching ... And this goes on and on, at boring and very tiresome length.

Not much else really happens. There is a bit of a subplot involving his daughter and her love affair with an Italian, which seems doomed to failure because her brother swears that the Italian is a villain (apparently, or so her brother thinks, he kidnapped and raped a peasant girl). Alas, this story is not resolved in the book -- instead, in the last pages, we are directed to another sequel (The Countess of Monte Cristo). There is a trival subplot in which Dantès becomes very ill and is nursed to life by the very woman who had rejected him in The Count of Monte Cristo.

So anyway ... as the book went on -- really, from very early -- I was thinking, "My gosh, this is awful stuff. Can it really be by Dumas?" At first I thought, maybe it's a bad translation. But no translator (well, maybe the Swedish translator who rewrote sections of Last and First Men to make Stalin win) could make a good book THAT bad. So then I thought, maybe it was a product of Dumas's "factory" that he didn't really pay much attention to. But that's not how Dumas worked. Besides, Dumas was an ally of Louis-Philippe, the King who was deposed in 1848, so I doubt he'd have written a book promoting the February revolution. (And indeed Dumas had to go into exile after Louis Napoleon took over, later in 1848.)

So I did some more investigating, and finally found the truth ... There have been, in fact, a number of sequels to The Count of Monte Cristo, by various writers, probably none of whom got permission from Dumas or paid him anything. This particular one is by an American named Edmund Flagg (1815-1890). It seems to have been first published in 1878, though my edition is dated 1884. Flagg actually wrote two sequels to this book: Monte Cristo's Daughter (1880) and The Wife of Monte Cristo (1884). I suppose perhaps Monte Cristo's Daughter reveals the conclusion to the sublot about his daughter's love affair with the Italian nobleman, though perhaps also it is in the book mentioned in the text, The Countess of Monte Cristo, which was by Jean Charles du Buys, published in 1869.

In the end, then, I was another, very late, victim of a fraud perpetrated some 140 years ago. A look at the Amazon reviews, as well as the Goodreads reviews, of Edmund Dantès, by the way, will reveal that I'm not the only contemporary reader to be quite disgusted by this book. But all in all it's an interesting story of the publishing world of the past (and of American copyright laws, which were quite lax in the 19th century -- nowadays, if anything, they are too strict, at least since Disney took over the job).