Monday, August 31, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


As I Lay Dying

To me, one of the most satisfying novels on the Modern Library’s list and one my favorites from its prolific author, William Faulkner, is As I Lay Dying (#35).  Its chief appeals are its black humor and modernist experimental style. “As I lay dying,” you can hear the unfortunate Addie Bundren say, “Just look what all these idiots around me were doing.”  In the seriousness of their endeavors, they succumb to ludicrous situations. And in their ridiculousness they unveil a great world.           
The story is told as first-person narrative from a rotating cast of about 15 characters.  Their intellectual acumen is varied.  Some are very young. Some have a loose grip on sanity. Some are obsessive. Some are fairly wise and grounded at moments. Some are selfish. Some are always striving to do the right thing. Some have big secrets. Some have a marvelous way with words.  Many of the characters we learn about through others before hearing from them directly. 
The dying woman, though the story pivots around her, appears in her own voice in only one passage more than halfway through the book.  Her passage is, among other things, a meditation on words.  It is a poetical articulation of what Faulkner does in this novel through strings of words, dialect, punctuation and italics that add up to repeated immersions into other people’s consciousnesses – like mind-melding sometimes, or like half-drowning in psychology, and sometimes like sensory overload, or like watching a high-rise being built or a sculpture emerge from a lump of clay. The story builds persistently. Understanding grows and blossoms.  It comes back around to that note of black humor: after everything everyone has been through, the father shows up at the end (I won’t say in what circumstance) and you want to say on their behalf, “Are you kidding me?!”
The basic outline of the plot can be gathered only after a full reading of the book.  Addie married Anse years ago and had several children. She lived with them away from where she grew up, and they understand that she wants to be buried back where she came from.  So once she dies, they undertake to transport her body in a casket one of the sons made, in a wagon pulled by mules across some miles of landscape, including wild waters. They make it after several days, with the decaying body still in the wagon in the casket. What they’ve lost in the journey, and what they’ve contended with during it and before it are the juicy meat of the story.
Faulkner was a virtuoso and became a cultural icon.  As cultural icon, later in his life, he was critiqued for not knowing personally enough of the actual people from whom the Civil Rights movement grew and around whom it swung.  His astoundingly profound understanding of people, and his equally astounding ability to bring that understanding to life through words earned him that stature and with it the unreasonable expectations not bestowed on other writers.  He wrote of the South; therefore, he should have been, in his writing, a political activist – like Steinbeck, perhaps.  He fell short, in some eyes, of the obligation of a cultural contributor.
Faulkner as novelist is obliged only to know his own characters.  In this aspect of the duties of novel-writing, Faulkner is the ultimate role-model.  He has no peer in American literature thus far.  His novels are fundamentally character studies, and this one is the prime example.  The world is created by individual people and their individual stories meshing together even where the characters themselves pass each other by in communication and comprehension.  It is, as an added bonus, funny and poignant and stylistically magical.  It has a rhythm that rushes and slows and turns back on itself and rushes again.  Each word, and each missing word, paints the landscape in which these people dwell. Each expression serves to fill out their living portraits. 
Faulkner wrote to write, and this novel should be read to be read. 


Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Modern Masterpiece

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett (#56 on the Modern Library’s list), is one of the few entries that could be described as genre fiction. It is known as detective noir, along with Hammett’s many other works (and with The Postman Always Rings Twice, reviewed in an earlier column) it adheres to that genre’s standards of scene and atmosphere (dark, rainy, and cynical) and character (isolated, noble, and cynical). It is also a hugely entertaining novel that holds up to repeated readings.
            The story is so complex that you’re left with the nagging notion that it doesn’t actually hang together. But it’s a story in the best sense of “story”:  what happens? and then what happens? and then what happens?
            The Maltese falcon is an object of mystery and value that has a whole host of characters spinning around it. The story starts with the private detective Sam Spade – by now an iconic American figure – who, we’re told, “looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan,” and a mysteriously fetching young woman who has lost her sister to a dubious romantic entanglement. Soon Spade’s partner, Archer, enters, and soon he meets with a mysteriously bad end. She is just a shade to the wrong side of innocence (or is she?), suspecting the worst kinds of depravity but unable to bring herself to articulate her fears.  Spade has seen it all and worse, and in his world-weariness is able to emit a sympathetic placidity even as he himself is accused of bad acts. No wonder a string of clients in dire trouble put their faith in this man.
            The Maltese falcon is an object whose value may be intrinsic but is more likely gained by the interest people have in it, a value that increases the more people that are interested. And there lies its value as a literary device, representing what is wrong with society  – American society in particular – that human life can be so willingly wasted in pursuit of a mere hunk of metal.
            The people interested are many. Their stories intersect with one another, unraveling and remeshing as secrets are uncovered by this relentless detective. Their goodness and their badness may at times be one and the same. They are described in exquisite detail, their physical features reflecting, as once was considered geniunely reliable (see Henry VIII, see physiognomic research of past centuries), their inner character. 
            Hammett the writer is famously known to have been black-listed during the McCarthy era for famously not naming names. His life and character, his reputed romantic and sentimental nature along with his hard-headed loner mentality and his intimate knowledge of the profession of detection (he was once a Pinkerton agent) show through the pages of his creations. The prose is the artwork. You can learn to roll a perfect cigarette from this book, how to wear a hat, how to pick your way, figuratively and literally, through the mess of the world. You can get drunk off the copious liquors imbibed and those half-drunk and left behind. You can get a headache from the kicks the characters take.
            Spade always has an attractive woman on his arm and several more lined up waiting for their chance, notably his late partner’s bereaved wife, but in the end he is alone, doing his job, impelled by his own sense of justice in this grimy world.
            Georges Simenon wrote similar stories of similar atmospheres in France. The Swedish writer Henning Mankell currently writes in the same genre reflecting the noir of his country and time.  Hammett’s is an American view. The unique Americanness of his era carries through to our understanding of our country today.  Noir is a great genre, allowing deep and broad exploration in a highly readable form, and this novel is a masterful example.



Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


All the King’s Men

All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (#36 on the Modern Library’s list) is a story of political corruption and of the trickling-down effect of a political machine, the lust for power that drives it and the infection it spreads. Narrated by Jack Burden, a young man enamored of and caught up in the machinations, the novel is complex in characters and plotting and vibrant in its prose.    
            The opening scene sets the tone and establishes the metaphor of the story.  It says, with journalistic immediacy and in zinging, popping style like that of the Beats (though written a decade before them), this: You could go careening off the road, mesmerized as you are by speed, the power of your car, and the gleaming black road – brand-new – laid out before you.  You could drop a wheel off the edge, lose control, and go hurtling to an untimely death witnessed by people who don’t seem to matter much to society, who have seen it before, who remark on it briefly and sardonically before returning to their labors. Or you might catch yourself in time and avert your own tragic demise.
            The central figure of this story, Willie Stark, quickly became the iconic politician, one who seeks power and more power, manipulating people and ruining lives just because he can.  He is the image of the corrupting influence of power, and of the denigration of the notions of a Democracy, which at the time the story is set (late 1930s) was a hot topic the world over.
            Just as compelling are the stories dependent on Willie’s, the stories of Jack Burden, his childhood friend, Adam Stanton, the woman he’s in love with, Ann Stanton (Adam’s sister), and his mentor, Judge Irwin. Jack is happy to be taken up by Willie Stark, to be an important person to this important man, to swagger around town with Willie’s gang, who have nicknames instead of real names, like gangsters.  He is happy to maintain what he believes is his impartiality as a newspaper reporter. He is happy to reel into this world these other people from his earlier life. He believes he can see through Willie, and keep him in proper perspective. He casts his descriptive judgment on Willie: the man with the Christmas tie and the schoolteacher wife. He sees himself as in-the-know, smart and connected, cool, immune to influence.  He’s just as immune to Willie’s growing perfidy as he is to Adam’s high moralism.  He knows himself and knows what’s what. 
            In Jack’s self-delusion is the power of this story. How strong a personality do you have to be to withstand the personality of someone like Willie Stark? How many tiny little compromises to the relentlessness of that personality does it take to break down your own? You take these tiny little steps in the name of picking your battles, in the name of furthering your own career, in the name of avoiding conflict, or even maybe out of moral laziness. And then one day you find you’ve gone a step too far. You find you have put aside your own ethical values and are yourself a corrupt individual, without claim to scruples.    
            This story takes place on the grand scale of American political office, where the power of corruption is supposed to matter the most. It was supposedly (though the author reportedly disclaimed this) based on a real politician who was big at the time. Over the decades, the story has played out again and again, to the point that it almost goes without saying that government is a machine operated by a small ambitious and unscrupulous group, excluding all of us weary laboring menials. But this story also hits at the level of individual lives, in the workplace, for instance: it is no coincidence that Willie Stark is called “Boss.”  In All the King’s Men, Jack’s myriad compliances and appeasements lead to abject tragedy.  In life, the outcomes can be subtler. It is a cautionary tale, told with brilliance.



Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


Dystopia

Novels depicting a dystopian world of the writer’s future are intriguing, entertaining, and frightening, especially when read from a time vantage point well past when the novel’s future was supposed to have happened.  It is then that the novel’s staying power is tested and the predictive intelligence and imagination of the writer is spot-lighted.
            Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, #5) and 1984 (George Orwell, #13), along with A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, #65, discussed in a previous column) are the books on the Modern Library’s list that fit this description.  I would not have ranked them, relative to one another, the way the Modern Library did, but this is not the first time we have not seen eye to eye.  I would also have included Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale on the list.  Maybe a separate list covering just this genre is needed. 
            Phrases and notions from each of these books have entered into our common vocabulary and consciousness.  “Big Brother,” from 1984, is arguably the most entrenched.  It has also been co-opted in this post-ironic age of voyeuristic/exhibitionistic television “reality” dramas to the point that it’s quite possible the label is no longer associated with Orwell’s vision of an intrusive and controlling government and the loss of personal privacy at all levels.  Which is more frightening than the novel is.
            From Brave New World we get mood-controlling drugs and specially designed test tube babies.  These days, psychopharmaceuticals are so ordinary and prevalent that the pharmaceutical companies are now making up disorders to go with the drugs. And the animal way of making and delivering babies has seemingly become optional.
            The disintegration of society in Handmaid’s Tale starts with the elimination of cash transactions, which is so common now as to be unremarkable. Surrogacy for procreation, depicted so disturbingly in the novel, is also, while not exactly mainstream, no longer an abhorrent oddity.
            Obviously, these novels all made a mark, reflecting the atmospheres, and fears, of the times in which they were written, and capturing so well the logical trajectories of then-current developments that they read now as prophetic. This is a literary merit of each.
I prefer 1984 to Brave New World because I prefer Orwell’s writing style to Huxley’s.  Orwell’s writing is clean and swift.  He wastes no words (as he was famously known to advise) but does memorable things with the language. His characters are unique.  His plots unfold with a kind of stomach-churning relentlessness.
            By contrast, Huxley’s writing is pedantic and can become boring.  (In fact, his other novel on this list, Point Counterpoint, I dismissed as practically unreadable.)  Brave New World has just as compelling a premise, and just as well constructed and detailed a fantastical world, but the writing does not sing like Orwell’s does, and its characters do not live quite as fully off the page.  (Similar things could be said of Handmaid’s Tale.)
            1984, in its succinctness, is a thing of beauty.  Like some other slim novels on the list, it is made to be read again and again.
            Let’s say the criteria for “best” in a novel include the art of the story, the artistry of the writer, the significance of the novel culturally, images that achieve iconic value, and themes that transcend the writer’s own time.   Then let’s say that among the novels here judged “best,” some are more best than others.


Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran
  
Sister Carrie

Number 33 on the Modern Library’s list is a novel by Theodore Dreiser called Sister Carrie. Dreiser has another novel on the list, called An American Tragedy (#16). He could as well have given Sister Carrie that title.  Instead he named it for not just the main character, but for the main character held in a certain perception. Carrie Meeber is someone’s little sister. The name Sister Carrie also invokes religious sisters—nuns. Both little sisters and nuns are pure and uncorrupted, which Sister Carrie is not. 
            I imagine this story’s attitude is one of disapproval or disappointment about the track Carrie’s life took. I imagine Sister Carrie in the eyes of this novel is seen as a fallen woman.  I read her more as an admirable character, a woman who followed her own bliss and did for herself. Carrie is also a typical woman of her time—not a traditional one, but a representative one—making her own way in the world rebelliously and without apology. Carrie is a triumphant character.
            The second main character, George Hurstwood, is a tragic character. When applied correctly, “tragic” doesn’t mean merely sad or heartbreaking. It means also something born of destiny.  A tragic character is one whose fate is in some way preordained by his own decisions and actions, maybe by his own personality. When the tragic end comes, especially in well-wrought literature, its heartbreaking qualities and its inevitability arrive together. Pathos is suffering of the innocent; tragedy is suffering of the not-innocent, who are not the same as “bad” (their suffering would be something else—justice, maybe).  George is a not-innocent who sets his own destiny in motion by a bad decision.
            The novel also tracks the idea of the American Dream—great fortune achieved by a person not born to it. This ideal set America off from the old countries, where birthplace was seemingly immutable: If you were born a younger daughter to a small-town working class family (as Carrie is), you grew up to be a woman who married a small-town working class man and produced more of your same kind (as her sister attempts to do). Carrie achieves instead a certain flavor of the American dream, reaching fame and fortune through strategic relationships. She meets along the way similar self-made people, men especially, including George.  Her sister and brother-in-law disapprove, and their disapproval also serves to push Carrie into the very realms they look down on, or perhaps are jealous of, as they struggle in maintaining their class standing as the country industrializes and the cities, where the work is, become like testing grounds for surviving or thriving, or neither.
George started out a man who could help Carrie achieve the material lifestyle she desired, but as Carrie rises, George declines.  He commits a theft in the service of his wooing of Carrie, and the rest of his life unfolds from the basis of that act. Carrie acts in an amoral fashion, some would say; George acts criminally. Carrie treats people callously; George puts his future at risk for the sake of pleasing her. Carrie gains the material success she desired. George loses his comfort and the dignity and respect he once had. Their fates do not seem to fit, moralistically speaking. They are literary fates, and also true and realistic. 
            Sister Carrie is a powerful story with indelible characters. It gives a very interesting portrait of America at a turning point in the country’s economic (and thus social) development.  Of the many vibrant scenes, one sticks in my mind especially: George is destitute in New York City, hoping to have a place to sleep that night, and he encounters a man who is a huskster for the homeless.  This man stands in the middle of Times Square and cajoles, like a carnival barker, passers-by to donate the price of a bed in a flophouse, and thereby one by one gets this long line of homeless men off the street for the night. Here are the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the forgotten, the capitalistic and the socialistic, the flip sides of the coin that is America, illustrated in 1900 as vibrantly as they play out even today.


Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.