January 1st 2022

Favourite books of 2021: Classics

In my three most recent posts, I went over the memoirs and biographies, the non-fiction and fiction I enjoyed in 2021. But in the last of my 2021 book-related posts, however, I'll be going over my favourite classics.

Of course, the difference between regular fiction and a 'classic' is an ambiguous, arbitrary and often-meaningless distinction: after all, what does it matter if Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (from 1951) is a classic or not? The term also smuggles in some of the ethnocentric gatekeeping encapsulated in the term 'Western canon' too. Nevertheless, the label of 'classic' has some utility for me in that it splits up the vast amount of non-fiction I read in two...

Books that just missed the cut here include: Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (moody and hilarious, but I cannot bring myself to include it due to the egregious antisemitism); Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata (so angry! so funny!); and finally Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of significant note, though, would be the ghostly The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.

Heart of Darkness (1899)

Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness tells the story of Charles Marlow, a sailor who accepts an assignment from a Belgian trading company as a ferry-boat captain in the African interior, and the novella is widely regarded as a critique of European colonial rule in Africa. Loosely remade by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now (1979), I started this book with the distinct possibility that this superb film adaptation would, for a rare treat, be 'better than the book'. However, Conrad demolished this idea of mine within two chapters, yet also elevated the film to a new level as well.

This was chiefly due to how observant Conrad was of the universals that make up human nature. Some of his insight pertains to the barbarism of the colonialists, of course, but Conrad applies his shrewd acuity to the at the smaller level as well. Some of these quotes are justly famous: “Ah! but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares,” for example, as well as the reference to a fastidiously turned-out colonial administrator who, with unimaginable horrors occurring mere yards from his tent, we learn “he was devoted to his books, which were in applepie order”. (It seems to me to be deliberately unclear whether his devotion arises from gross inhumanity, utter denial or some combination of the two.) Oh, and there's a favourite moment of mine when a character remarks that “It was very fine for a time, but after a bit I did get tired of resting.”

Tired of resting! Yes, it's difficult to now say something original about a many-layered classic such as this, especially one that has analysed from so many angles already; from a literary perspective at first, of course, but much later from a critical postcolonial perspective, such as in Chinua Achebe's noted 1975 lecture, An Image of Africa. Indeed, the history of criticism in the twentieth century of Heart of Darkness must surely parallel the social and political developments in the Western world. (On a highly related note, the much-cited non-fiction book King Leopold's Ghost is on my reading list for 2022.)

I will therefore limit myself to saying that the boat physically falling apart as it journeys deeper into the Congo may be intended to represent that our idea of 'Western civilisation' ceases to function, both morally as well as physically, in this remote environment. And, whilst I'm probably not the first to notice the potential ambiguity, when Marlow lies to Kurtz's 'Intended [wife]' in the closing section in order to save her from being exposed to the truth about Kurtz (surely a metaphor about the ignorance of the West whilst also possibly incorporating some comment on gender?), the Intended replies: “I knew it.” For me, though, it is not beyond doubt that what the Intended 'knows' is that she knew that Marlow would lie to her: in other words, that the alleged ignorance of everyday folk in the colonial homeland is studied and deliberate. Compact and fairly easy-to-read, it is clear that Heart of Darkness rewards even the most rudimentary analysis.

Rebecca (1938)

Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier creates in Rebecca a credible and suffocating atmosphere in the shape of Manderley, a grand English mansion owned by aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter. Our unnamed narrator (a young woman seemingly naïve in the ways of the world) meets Max in Monte Carlo, and she soon becomes the second Mrs. de Winter. The tale takes a turn to the 'gothic', though, when it becomes apparent that the unemotional Max, as well as potentially Manderley itself, appears to be haunted by the memory of his late first wife, the titular Rebecca.

Still, Rebecca is less of a story about supernatural ghosts than one about the things that can haunt our minds. For Max, this might be something around guilt; for our narrator, the class-centered fear that she will never fit in. Besides, Rebecca doesn't need an actual ghost when you have Manderley's overbearing housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, surely one of the creepiest characters in all of fiction. Either way, the conflict of a kind between the fears of the protagonists means that they never really connect with each other.

The most obvious criticism of Rebecca is that the main character is unreasonably weak and cannot quite think or function on her own. (Isn't it curious that the trait of the male 'everyman' is a kind of physical clumsiness yet the female equivalent is shorthanded by being slightly slow?) But the naïvete of Rebecca's narrator makes her easier to relate to in a way, and it also makes the reader far more capable of empathising with her embarrassment. This is demonstrated best whilst she, in one of the best evocations of this particular anxiety I have yet come across, is gingerly creeping around Manderlay and trying to avoid running into the butler.

A surprise of sorts comes in the latter stages of the book, and this particular twist brings us into contact with a female character who is anything but 'credulous'. This revelation might even change your idea of who the main character of this book really is too. (Speaking of amateur literary criticism, I have many fan theories about Rebecca, including that Maxim de Winter's estate manager, Frank Crawley, is actually having an affair with Max, and also that Maxim may have a lot more involvement in Mrs Danvers final act that he lets on.)

An easily accessible novel (with a great-but-not-perfect 1940 adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca is a real indulgence.

A Clockwork Orange (1962)

Anthony Burgess

One of Stanley Kubrick's most prominent tricks was to use different visual languages in order to prevent the audience from immediately grasping the underlying story. In his 1975 Barry Lyndon, for instance, the intentionally sluggish pacing and elusive characters require significant digestion to fathom and appreciate, and the luminous and quasi-Renaissance splendour of the cinematography does its part to constantly distract the viewer from the film's greater meaning.

This is very much the case in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange as well — whilst it ostensibly appears to be about a Saturnalia of violence, the 'greater meaning' of A Clockwork Orange pertains to the Christian conception of free will; admittedly, a much drier idea to bother making a film around. This is all made much clearer when reading Anthony Burgess' 1962 original novel. Alex became a 'true Christian' through the experimental rehabilitation process, and even offers to literally turn the other cheek at one point. But as Alex had no choice to do so (and can no longer choose to commit violence), he is incapable of making a free moral choice. Thus, is he really a Man?

Yet whilst the book's central concern is our conception of free will in modern societies, it also appears to be a repudiation of two conservative principles. Firstly, A Clockwork Orange demolishes the idea that 'high art' leads to morally virtuous citizens. After all, if you can do a “bit of the old ultra-violence” whilst listening to the “glorious 9th by old Ludvig van,” then so much for the oft-repeated claims that culture makes you better as a person. (This, at least, I already knew from personal experience.)

The other repudiation in A Clockwork Orange is in regard to the pervasive idea that the countryside is a refuge from crime and sin. By contrast, we see the gang commit their most horrific violence in rural areas, and, later, Alex is taken to the countryside by his former droogs for a savage beating. Although this doesn't seem to quite fit the novel, this was actually an important point for Burgess to include: otherwise his book could easily be read as a commentary on the corrupting influence of urban spaces, rather than of modernity itself.

The language of this book cannot escape comment here. Alex narrates most of the book in a language called Nadsat, a fractured slang constructed by Burgess based on Russian and Cockney rhyming slang. (The language is strange for only a few pages, I promise. And note that 'Alex' is a very common Russian name.) Using Nadsat has the effect of making the book feel distinctly alien, but it also prevents it from prematurely aging too. Indeed, it comes as bit of a shock to realise that A Clockwork Orange was published 1962, the same year as The Beatles' released their first single, Love Me Do.

I could probably say a whole lot more about this thoroughly engrossing book and its movie adaptation (eg. the meta-textual line in Kubrick's version: “It's funny how the colours of the real world only seem really real when you watch them on a screen...” appears verbatim in the textual original), but I'll leave it there. The book of A Clockwork Orange is not only worth the investment in the language, but is, again, somehow better than the film.

The Great Gatsby (1925)

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I'm actually being a little deceitful by including this book here: I cannot really say that The Great Gatsby was a 'favourite' read of the year, but its literary merit is so undeniable (and my respect for Fitzgerald's achievement is deep enough) that the experience was one of those pleasures you feel at seeing anything done well.

Here you have a book so rich in symbolic meaning that you could easily confuse the experience with drinking Coke syrup undiluted. And a text that has made the difficulty and complexity of reading character a prominent theme of the novel, as well as a technical concern of the book itself. Yet at all times you have in your mind that The Great Gatsby is first and foremost a book about a man writing a book, and, therefore, about the construction of stories and myths.

What is the myth being constructed in Gatsby? The usual answer today is that the book is really about the moral virtues of America. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Indeed, as James Boice wrote in 2016:

Could Wilson have killed Gatsby any other way? Could he have ran him over, or poisoned him, or attacked him with a knife? Not at all—this an American story, the quintessential one, so Gatsby could have only died the quintessential American death.

The “quintessential American death” is, of course, being killed with a gun.

Whatever your own analysis, The Great Gatsby is not only magnificently written, but it is captivating to the point where references intrude many months later. For instance, when reading something about Disney's 'princess culture', I was reminded of when Daisy says of her daughter: “I hope she'll be a fool—that's the best thing of a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”. Or the billboard with the eyes of 'Doctor T. J. Eckleburg'. Or the fact that the books in Gatsby's library have never been read (so what is 'Owl Eyes' doing there during the party?!). And the only plain room in Gatsby's great house is his bedroom... Okay, fine, I must have been deluding myself: I love this novel.

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