Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (#RIPXIV)

This is a collection of thirteen stories written by English authors from the years 1891 to 1914. The editor of the collection is Hugh Greene, brother of Graham. Hugh Greene seems to have collected old mysteries and, since he worked in television, this collection was a basis for a British television series (which I haven't seen.)

Greene says he limited the selection of mysteries to characters who had an identifiable London address, like 221B Baker Street. But they're not all consulting detectives. Some are; but Lady Molly is with Scotland Yard; the Old Man in the Corner solves crimes for his own amusement, but doesn't worry about bringing the criminal to justice; Mr. Pringle is a con man; and Simon Carne is simply a thief.

I think we can safely say that Sherlock Holmes actually doesn't have any rivals... ;-) but some of these are nevertheless fun. I particularly liked the two by Baroness Orczy, better known as the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel. But her stories about Lady Molly and The Old Man in the Corner are quite good. Also good was R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke story, and Ernest Bramah's story about Max Carrados, the blind detective. Several of these detectives are represented on the Haycraft-Queen list of classic mysteries.

And because they're early, a bunch of these are available at Project Gutenberg, and I'd previously read the first collection of Old Man in the Corner stories and the collection of stories about Max Carnacki, the ghost finder, by William Hope Hodgson.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Lifted Veil (#RIPXIV)

"For I foresee when I shall die, and everything that will happen in my last moments."

Latimer, the narrator of George Eliot's The Lifted Veil, is, to borrow sci-fi terminology, a precog: he sees (some) events of the future in complete detail. His first vision he treats with scepticism; it is of him standing on the Charles Bridge in Prague at a future date and he considers it at first just a daydream. But then it happens exactly as he foresaw it and he comes to trust that these visions are his real future. Like all accurate visions of the future it turns out to be a double-edged sword.

Latimer is dreamy and poetic, though not, he says, a poet: "You will think, perhaps, I must have been a poet, from this early susceptibility to nature. But my lot was not so happy as that." Indeed, he doesn't seem to do much in his life, but he has an income, he doesn't need to. When we first see him, he's a young man of twenty or so; he has an older half-brother Alfred who's engaged to Bertha Grant. Bertha is beautiful and blonde, witty in company, but perhaps just a bit empty. At least, Latimer is unable to see into her. (As he claims he can with others.) He falls in love with her anyway, or maybe because of his inability she seems mysterious; in any case he never believes Bertha is in love with his brother. They marry, after Alfred dies in a hunting accident.
"[This inability to see into her] only brought me more completely under her power: no matter how empty the adytum, so that the veil be thick enough." 
The lifting of the veil--the revelation of that hidden chamber at the back of the temple--is the climax of the story.

It's an odd piece and unlike most of the rest of George Eliot. It dates from 1859, the same year as her first novel Adam Bede, and appeared in Blackwood's. I wondered to what extent Latimer's uncertainty as to his future, his indecision about his artistic calling, represented George Eliot herself. 

Also I believe it's the only work of George Eliot narrated in the first person, and the aura is that of a Gothic novel, unlike the rest of her fiction. (Especially the spooky ending, which I won't reveal.)  

But it does have at least one element in common with other works by George Eliot. Rosamond Vincy has nothing on Bertha Grant. The wisdom of George Eliot? Boys, don't marry that blonde!

Tuesday, October 29, 2019


Hubert is thinking about adventures

I'm not going to say much about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you're the sort of person who's going to like them, you already know about them. I didn't actually read the much-read and battered copy of the trilogy in the photo. My parents gave me that one for Christmas in 1977 and I can't bear to get rid of it, but I have a newer copy for reading.

My booklog tells me I last read it through in 2012, a pretty long time for me between readings. When I was a graduate student one of my fellow students told me he was afraid to reread it--he'd liked it so much in high school, but was worried it wouldn't hold up. I was rereading it at the time. That struck me as foolish for several reasons: one, even if it wasn't that good, if he had such a strong reaction to it at one time, it's interesting to look back at who you were; but mostly two, it is that good, and he wasn't wrong to like the book in high school. There are things to be said against it, of course: the female characters are thin, the prose is sometimes archaicizing. Still, it's great. If you have any susceptibility to epic tales of fantasy, it's one of the best.

But what I will particularly mention is E. A. Wyke-Smith's The Marvelous Land of Snergs. I found out about it via Michael Dirda at the Washington Post. On the cover of the Dover Reprint (shown) is a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, "I should like to record my own love and my children's love of E. A. Wyke-Smith's Marvellous Land of Snergs." Unwanted children are removed to a mysterious land by  Miss Watkyns, leader of the benevolent Society for the Removal of Superfluous Children. Sylvia and Joe find the controlling benevolence of Miss Watkyns a little too much and set off in search of adventures.

It's pretty clear that Tolkien did love the book: Snergs are about eighty percent hobbit and twenty percent dwarf, but Snergs precede both. If you don't know Wyke-Smith, but love Tolkien, you should hunt it up, especially if you're one of those who prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. It has The Hobbit sense of humor. Unfortunately it seems to be out of print, but my library had that Dover reprint of 2006.

And so while I still intend to read the Decameron, I'm going to call this as a Very Long Classic for Karen's Back to the Classics challenge. It's definitely long and I say it's a classic.

And remember, as (the possibly imaginary) Ernesto says, (on his blog!) Don't settle for any watered-down, derivative Tolking...

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Mystery Mile (#1930Club, #RIPXIV)

Mr. Albert Campion

Coups neatly executed
Nothing sordid, vulgar or plebeian
Deserving cases preferred
Police no object

That's the business card our hero hands out, and it pretty much all applies to the case related in Mystery Mile.

Judge Crowder is the target of the so-called Misfire Murders, in which four other people are murdered, presumably in attempts to kill the judge. Judge Crowder has earned the ire of the Simister gang, and has a clue as to its anonymous leader, though he's not entirely sure what he's got. He heads to England with the idea that being away from the gang's main base of operations will make him safer; but he's unwilling to hide or much change his life, and leaving New York is all he's willing to do. The novel starts when a fifth attempt on his life is made shipboard and is foiled (by accident?) by Campion. 

Since the judge won't put up with police protection, his son hires Campion to do what he can.

This is more adventure than mystery; after those first four murders that occur offstage, as it were, there are no others, though there is a kidnapping; the judge survives; the identity of Simister is only thinly hidden, I thought.

I've only read a few of the Campion stories. This is the second in which he appears, but the first where he's the major figure. Campion is famous for his non-sequiturs, his distracted conversational style. I have the feeling that gets tamed as the series goes along, but he's in full inscrutability here, babbling (or is he?) about his pet mouse's birthday in the first chapter. The world around Campion is still being built: this is the first appearance of his formerly criminal assistant, but now his butler, Magersfontein Lugg. It's also the first appearance of that useful thing, a friend at Scotland Yard, Stanislas Oates.

Anyway, very entertaining, I thought. Made me wonder why I hadn't read more Allingham.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Custom of the Country (#CCSpin)

My Classics Club spin selection was Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, and once again the spin machine did right by me.

The Custom of the Country is the story of Undine Spragg and her quest for a suitable marriage. The Spraggs are from Apex City (wherever exactly that might be, but it's in the western United States; the Dakotas are mentioned) and Mr. Spragg has had some financial success in his hometown. His daughter convinces him to move to New York so she can mingle with old wealth. He agrees, to please her, but also to put distance between Undine and her attachment to the unsuitable Elmer Moffatt. Young Moffatt may be a man on the make, but he's of unknown provenance, and working, if at all, as a groom.

And that's about all I feel like I should say without spoiler warnings. There are novels you know will end tragically: the fate of Tess is never in much doubt; there are novels you know will end in marriage: after reading, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," it can only be the case Elizabeth Bennet will get married, even if you know nothing of Jane Austen. And in those sort of novels it's OK if you know what's going to happen.

But The Custom of the Country is not a novel like that. So:


The novel seems at first like it might be simply a satirical romp. Undine's two best girlfriends, but also rivals in her quest to marry a rich man, are (in their maiden nomenclature) Indiana Frusk and Mabel Blitch. Yowza. Undine is named, her father says, for a hair-curler, one of his first commercial successes.

But Undine (or Ondine) is also the name of a mythological water sprite. The description in the Wikipedia article is so comically apt (or is it?) to our Undine, I have to quote:
"Although resembling humans in form, they lack a human soul, so to achieve mortality, they must acquire one by marrying a human."
When she arrives in New York her guide to society is the rather questionable Mrs. Heeny, a masseuse. Undine and her mother know nothing about old money New York, but under Mrs. Heeny's dubious tutelage, they learn, and Undine learns quicker. Undine captivates Ralph Marvell, the heir to an old money fortune much diminished over the years. Certainly Ralph is more aware of the poetic overtones of the name Undine, though the exact nature of the legend is never mentioned in the novel. Even more than her Romantic name, though, her beauty snares him; that, and the belief she's unformed, and he can do the forming.

Well, we've seen the way she manipulates her father, so we know how that will go.

We're told of the 'Marvell tradition':
The only essential was that he should live 'like a gentleman' -- that is, with a tranquil disdain for mere money-getting, a passive openness to the finer sensations, one or two fixed principles as to the quality of wine, and an archaic probity that had not yet learned to distinguish between private and 'business' honour.
This is all pretty much satire to this point, but Ralph Marvell becomes a pretty sympathetic character; he may be a little romantically naive, but does he deserve Undine?

At one point (Chapter 15) Charles Bowen, a minor character in the old money set, tells Ralph's sister, that men become obsessively interested in their jobs, ignoring their wives, and that women become grasping and consumerist, is 'the custom of the country.' Ralph's sister asks him:
"And is Undine one of the exceptions?" 
Her companion took the shot with a smile. "No -- she's a monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph. It's Ralph who's the victim and the exception."
And so it proves.

But that's not the end of the novel either. Undine spends Ralph--and her father, too--into something like bankruptcy, and abandons her child with Ralph. She plots a marriage with Ralph's richer cousin-in-law, Peter van Degen, a noted playboy, and gets a divorce.

But Peter van Degen won't marry her, and Undine is without a husband and without an income. Undine now sees the usefulness of her child, and agrees to leave the child with Ralph if he can come up with the money she needs. This is Undine at her most villainous; it's what makes her one of the most hated protagonists in literature.

Ralph can't find the money; Undine takes back their child, and Ralph commits suicide; this clears the way for Undine's marriage to Count de Chelles, French and Catholic enough to hesitate in marrying a divorced woman, but not a widowed one. But this marriage isn't a success either. Count de Chelles, unlike Ralph, is perfectly capable of ignoring Undine's tantrums, and eventually falls out of love over her inability to maintain a tone suitable for his Faubourg Saint-Germain set. (Swann's Way came out the same year as The Custom of the Country. Undine Spragg meet Duchesse de Guermantes!)

It's another low for Undine; she brought them both on herself, of course: but this one feels a little less earned than her previous low (after she was abandoned by van Degen.) Raymond de Chelles really does simply ignore her most of the time, and his sense of who her friends should be is quite controlling. Maybe this is a novel like The Red and The Black: a grasping provincial claws her way to the top, only to suffer a fatal comeuppance. But no, this isn't that novel either, and Undine Spragg is not Julien Sorel.

She divorces a second time, which will leave the Catholic Raymond de Chelles in the lurch. With no legitimate son to inherit, his spendthrift, but fecund younger brother will inherit the title and the Hôtel de Chelles. We've seen Elmer Moffatt along the way, succeeding, though with some questionable methods, but it's now he comes back into the picture in a big way, and...


...well, she marries him. But that's not the spoiler; you may not be surprised at that. The Other Reader is currently reading the novel and has already guessed that.

The surprise is she was married to Elmer Moffatt back in Apex City; that unsuitable attachment wasn't just an engagement, but resulted in the first of her three divorces. So two ambitious, not overly ethical, young people from the provinces finally discover in each other what they've always wanted. They could have been married the whole time, with none of the casualties along the way. But Elmer has now got the money to keep even Undine in jewels, and Undine has acquired a tone that, while it may not be sophisticated enough for the de Chelles family, will do just fine for an Elmer Moffatt. A happy ending? A dark comedy of sorts? And if one likes categories, that will probably have to do.

But there's one more twist. One of the Apex City set is appointed the U.S. ambassador in London, and Undine thinks that's what I really want to be, an ambassadress. But she can't, because she's been divorced. The novels ends with:
But under all the dazzle a tiny black cloud remained. She had learned that there was something she could never get, something that neither beauty nor millions could ever buy for her. She could never be an Ambassador's wife; and as she advanced to welcome her first guests she said to herself that it was the one part she was really made for.
Ha! So the scheming provincial gets her comeuppance anyway. But in a tiny way. And why was she divorced? Because her father compelled her to get divorced; back then Elmer Moffatt seemed unsuitable, though we've come to see they're all too suitable to each other. To what extent is Undine even the author of her own fate? If she'd stayed married to Elmer, as she wanted, she could have been an ambassador's wife! That is, if Elmer had still succeeded, dragging along the spendthrift Undine. And Undine had acquired the tone to be an ambassador's wife as the wife of Elmer Moffatt.

And even then would she have been happy? Or are Undine's (and all human) wants simply unlimited, as economists say? Well, you'll just have to decide.

If you got this far...ignoring all my spoiler may be you've read it. What did you think? Did Undine get what she deserved? What did she deserve?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sunday Salon


My Classics Club spin choice was Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. It's very good: post coming soon. But Indiana Frusk, Mabel Blitch, and Undine Spragg! I am very glad I don't come from Apex City if I was going to be saddled with a name like that.

Nobel Prize Watch

This is the week. The Swedish Academy were really trying for a while there to destroy the mystique of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I still get excited for the Thursday announcement. When I was an undergraduate a friend told me I should try to read a living author before winning the Nobel prize. I think that was when I had a stack of Elias Canetti under my arm. But in my defense I was a classics major...

The Italians have a word -- papabile -- for somebody who could plausibly be elected pope. And I do now sometimes read those who could be considered nobelabile, instead of just laureates. The betting shops put Anne Carson on the inside track this year, who would be a very good choice, but I just read the newest (in translation) by one of my favorites, Claudio Magris.

It's a collection of very short essays or observations, from his travels or from around Trieste, and often poignant or funny or both.

Currently Reading

I piled up a stack of books for #1930club earlier this week and started one of the two long ones: Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania.

I'm also reading Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving along with Cleo.

Where I Was

We went to New Hampshire to visit my sister-in-law and brother-in-law. The other thing I'm reading these days is Moby Dick for Brona's readalong, and while Portsmouth, NH, may not quite be the fons et origo of New England whaling, it ain't so far neither. I hadn't paid any attention to it before, but we were greeted by a whale welcome mat, and that wasn't the only opportunity for a #mobydickinthewild picture:

Hope all's well with you!

Thanks to DebNance at Readersbuzz for hosting the Sunday Salon.

Saturday, October 5, 2019


It's year book club time again and this year it's 1930. This semi-annual club is hosted at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings; the idea is participants read books set in the given year and blog about them; it gives a fun overall picture of the year in question. Naturally I used this as an excuse to pile up books:

We've got some large, medium, and small choices there. The first volume of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil and Holbrook Jackson's The Anatomy of Bibliomania count as large; J. B. Priestly's Angel Pavement, which looks bigger than it is, and Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes are my mediums; and the shorties are Margery Allingham's Mystery Mile and P. G. Wodehouse's story collection Very Good, Jeeves.

The pile is aspirational, of course,... 😉and, in particular, I'm unlikely to read both the larges. I'm tempted by Musil, which was the subject of a series of great blog posts at the Bookbinder's Daughter, but it would be a reread for me. The appeal--to me--of a book titled The Anatomy of Bibliomania is not hard to figure out, and, well, I've already started it.

Also, because I feel like I should deprecate rereads at the moment, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Sam Spade, Charlie Chan, and Simon Templar all stayed on their shelves. But I read Enter The Saint recently enough that I do have a blog post for it.

Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting!

Which look good to you?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Hannah Arendt's Men In Dark Times

Men in Dark Times is a collection of Hannah Arendt's occasional articles that came out in 1968. The pieces were from the previous fifteen years and cover figures such Karl Jaspers, Pope John XXIII, Walter Benjamin, Hermann Broch, Bertolt Brecht. Despite the title two women are included: Rosa Luxembourg and Isak Dinesen.

Arendt is probably best known for her great book Eichmann in Jerusalem, her controversial report on the trial in 1961 of Adolf Eichmann for his part in the Holocaust. It's the source of the phrase, 'the banality of evil.' She was also a political philosopher and a scholar of totalitarianism.

I pulled this off the shelf to read her essay on Hermann Broch because I was still thinking about The Death of Virgil, but that was actually the least interesting essay in the book: it's the introduction a volume out of the collected essays of Broch, and it was simply too specialized for me.

Some of the other essays are slender: she has some interesting ideas about Dinesen, for instance, but the context was a biography of Dinesen she was reviewing that she didn't think was very good, and that distracted her from the more interesting parts, I thought. Half the essays are translated from German.

But the essays on Benjamin, and particularly on Brecht, were very good. That on Benjamin was from a foreword to the collection of Benjamin essays titled Illuminations, but I thought it would serve as a pretty good introduction to Benjamin, even if you didn't go on to read that particular book. And her essay on Brecht was even better: it was a piece from the New Yorker ten years after Brecht died, and was looking at the state of his reputation at that time, the relationship between his poetry and his politics. Brecht died in a somewhat bad odor; he had been chased out of the United States after World War II for his (never very doctrinaire) communism, and further chased out of West Germany, ending up in East Germany. He was unhappy and unproductive there and most likely afraid in those last years of Stalin. Arendt, the great scholar and opponent of all totalitarianism, sensitively considers the relationship of the work to the political morality of the artist. I wondered to what extent this also reflected her thoughts on Heidegger, who had been her teacher--and lover--in between the world wars, but was later a Nazi supporter.

Recommended particularly for the essay on Brecht.