Monday, November 10, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


I, Claudius
Number 14 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century is I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, published in 1934. This novel purports to be the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, a member of the Roman ruling family in the time of Julius Caesar.  From this basis, Graves gives us a historical novel with the intimacy of a first-person eye-witness account.
            Why is I, Claudius a great novel? Let’s start with the character Claudius.  In contrast with his family, friends, and rivals, he is a poor physical specimen: he stutters and he is half-crippled. This means he is considered weak and stupid, dismissible at best, abusable.  But as we come to find out, Claudius is far from stupid and far from weak.  He uses these perceptions as a cloak to hide his actions and manipulations, and he becomes a great man in the context of his time.
            More than this, Claudius is a great literary character.  His personality is so fully formed by this author, Graves, that he is as if real—living, breathing, thinking, feeling.  He is clever and funny, likeable, sympathetic, and, finally, shockingly ruthless.  Of course, he was real; his life is a historical fact, after all. It took place approximately 2060 years ago, and in a language long dead, but in Graves’s hands, Claudius and his contemporaries could be our contemporaries.  He lives on the page and he continues to live after the back cover of the book is reluctantly closed.  (In fact, Graves went on to write a sequel, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina.) 
            First-person narration tends to do this: to create an indelible character whose story has immediacy and intimacy. It conveys a different style of truth than another attitudinal approach would. Certainly, it provides a more visceral experience, a kind of juiciness, than a historical recitation does.
            Next what makes the novel great is the material Graves has to work with.  Countless literary works have been harvested from Roman history, rich as it is in drama.  The intricacies of relationships, the political and social rules dictating behaviors and fomenting rebellions right down to the very personal; murder, mating, elevation and debasement, loyalty, remorse, betrayal, grief; all of the most intense emotion-rousing, reaction-inciting aspects of humanity bubble in the stew of this history.  And we devour and nourish ourselves from that stew to this day.
            And finally there is the artistry.  The Romans left behind a remarkable body of literature and primary-source history themselves.  But what imagination it takes to construct fiction out of this ancient heritage!  Other authors have done it before and since, but of the 20th century novelists, Graves’s work merits its place among the best of fiction.  Read I, Claudius and see if you don’t yearn to know more about this man and the men and women around him.  (If you do, go to Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way, and then see if you can resist her previous work, The Greek Way.  These are not fiction; they are very strictly nonfiction, history-teaching, scholarly works but imbued with the novelist’s spirit.)  And consider that this novel was written and published during a revolutionary time in the history of the English-language novel, when the contemporary, the ordinary were the topics of choice. 
            Could Claudius stand tall beside John Dowell (The Good Soldier), Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises), Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)?  He could.  Could he stand alone?  He does.


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, October 13, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


Kipling and London

Rudyard Kipling and Jack London are both writers I’ve always associated with adolescent boys’ adventure stories and therefore have not felt the need to acquaint myself with.  It turns out that Kipling’s Kim (#78 on the list) and London’s The Call of the Wild (#88) also inhabit the category of “pleasant surprises.”
            They are very different novels, written by two people in very different circumstances, but they have several things in common as well.  Kim conveys surprisingly incisive views of cultural difference seen through the eyes of a young boy.  The Call of the Wild contains a surprisingly incisive view of the workings of the canine mind. (For two other examples of a human writer getting convincingly into the mind of a dog, read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, which is fiction, and The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, which is nonfiction.)  These two novels also fulfill that most wonderful promise of literature of transporting you, the reader, to a new and foreign place you will never have the chance to experience first-hand.
            Both writers write about events and settings they know very well, being made of them.  Kipling was British, raised mostly in India in that peculiar cultural and ethnic environment of the British Raj, which figures frequently in British literature of the early part of the 20th century.  London was American, some would say quintessentially American, being of the West of the late 1800’s, a land of challenge and opportunity often presented as the embodiment of the American spirit.
            Kim’s protagonist is a young boy; The Call of the Wild’s is a dog.  Each is in his way a displaced person: Kim the son of Irish and English parents abandoned to the streets of India, passing as an Indian boy; Buck a farm dog stolen and pressed into service as a Yukon sled dog.  Each is forced to live a life outside the expectations of his “breed” and each survives by the strength of his own core being.  These characters, thrown against their wills into their present circumstances, go from incident to incident, encountering new strange and influential characters at every turn, only to be shoved in a new direction and never to see them again.  They grow along the way, gaining experience and control through hardship and near misses of both the dangerous and safe, affectionate kind.
            Kim was published in 1901 and The Call of the Wild in 1903, making them both novels not truly belonging to the 20th century (similar to Henry James’ novel), more so because they were stories intended to entertain and illuminate with no pretensions to prescience. Both were originally published serially and they have that cliff-hanging, bated-breath pacing and tone that can be so enjoyable when done well.  These are done very well.  The writers’ mastery over their craft is plain.  They are both contemporary novels, so written in the real time and on the real experience of the writer and yielding a satisfying immediacy.  They each convey wisdom of the kind that grows out of culture clash—old cultures against each other, or a new culture establishing itself.  And each is, fundamentally, an adventure story: exciting and suspenseful, the kind of reading that might make you miss your train stop.
            Prejudice, as we all know, is not admirable.  It also carries with it the risk that you might miss out on some good reading. 


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, September 15, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

A Clockwork Orange
Number 65 on the Modern Library’s list is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, one of my favorite novels of all times and also one of my favorite movies (made by Stanley Kubrick).  There are distinct reasons for both being favorites but the unifying appeal is Burgess’s superbly imaginative linguistics.
            Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World (both also on the list), A Clockwork Orange depicts a dystopian world of the not terribly distant future in which the things ordinary people are currently discomfited by have logically grown to oppressive proportions.  The protagonist and narrator is Alex, an anti-hero if there ever was one.  He is a truly appealing and appalling young teenaged thug living with his overly permissive, useless parents in anarchical urban England. He is lively, intelligent, and dandyish, with a seemingly paradoxical love of Beethoven.  Along with an ethos of hedonism and violence, he and his friends have developed a richly expressive language that leans heavily on Russian. (The book was published in 1962, amidst the Cold War.) 
            As an amateur linguist and full-blown philologist, I revel in this aspect of the novel.  It is intriguing and amusing to read. The language is only one compelling aspect, however, and in some ways the superficial one. As teenage slang provides cover to its users so they can talk about what they need to talk about without comprehension or interference from adults, the invented language dresses up the narrative, which is of a society degenerated into a mess of hierarchically ordered exploitative violence.
            Alex’s attitudes and actions are of the type we are frightened of, being apparently senseless and uncontrollable.  What is more intimidating to an unsure adult than a strong boy of adult physicality with no internal constraints on his behavior?  The fear is both physical and moral:  This boy could do us harm, and we are the ones who should have taught him better.  Alex himself is also a victim, however, to passivity on the part of his parents, misplaced hyper-control from school and law authority (think of the zero-tolerance policy common in present-day elementary schools), and finally psychological torture in the name of the greater good by dispassionate social scientists, the most frightening prospect of all.
            The beauty of the novel is how it constructs a feeling of connection between the reader and Alex.  He should be our worst nightmare, but instead he is disturbingly attractive.  He is the narrator of our decline, the commentator on our faults.  He pulls the veil off all the things we don’t want to own up to.  Alex will grow up, if he does not end up lobotomized in some fashion or other, into an adult, as will his friends.  He embodies the trend of the world, set in motion by this thing called society, in which no individual is compelled to take responsibility in his or her own time.  He should be a warning, but he is charming and captivating and sets us off-balance.
            The book itself is slim and quick.  The writing is irresistible. You have to dive right in to the slang, accepting it, comprehending through context.  The first paragraph alone contains more than a dozen neologisms, not to mention the novel grammar and stylistic constructs of Alex’s speech.  And so you immediately take your place there in the milk bar, poised to accompany this character through his story, embedded, as it were—complicit.


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. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Reflections from the Well
On Writing Craft, Creativity & Inspiration



By Alexander Slagg



Is the End Just the Beginning?

I was recently inspired to read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass again, especially the poem “Song of Myself.” I needed some inspiration and guidance from a source that championed individuality and encouraged a sensual relationship to all that life has to offer. Walt Whitman was my man.

I recall last reading this iconic collection and poem back in the summer of 2002. I have vivid memories of riding the bus from my apartment in San Francisco to my first “real” editing job far out in Marin County, reading a tattered copy as the sun-scorched Northern California landscape unspooled outside the window. As I rolled along in air-conditioned comfort, I remember being awed by the spiritual depth and breadth of this work — some mid-19th century dude had put to paper these expansive mystical observations. Amazing! And I was intrigued by Whitman’s erotic themes. Again, some mid-19th century dude had written this. Amazing! “Song of Myself” read like a secret peek into someone’s diary from a long time ago.

The first thing that caught my attention this time around was in the introduction, which details some of the collection’s writing and publishing history. Whitman did not simply gather this collection of work and then release it to the world — end of story. The first edition was published in 1855. By the time Whitman died in 1892, he had published from 6 to 9 subsequent editions (depending on how you define an edition) of Leaves of Grass. With each edition he revised and tinkered with his masterwork, rephrasing, reorganizing, shifting around content, adding content. With the death-bed edition of Leaves of Grass, the collection had grown from 12 poems to almost 400 altogether.

As an artist, what is to be made of this constant tinkering and reworking? When is a writing project done? Whitman continued to update “Song of Myself” and other poems from the original edition for more than 36 years. In my own experience, this onerous dedication to refining a creative work seems extreme. I like to believe that every creative project is on its own time frame and has its own unique gestation period. But I also think that it’s very easy for an artist to get sucked into the revision quagmire.

I finished writing my first novel in 2007, the initial draft having taken about two and a half years. Over the past seven years I have workshopped it and gone through extensive rewrites. I’m currently on draft four. When will this project be done? Not soon enough for my tastes. The thought of sitting down to work through subsequent drafts is about as appealing as a rusty nail through my hand.

Through the entire rewrite process, I’ve wanted to do nothing else but move on to the next project (which I’ve done here and there, eventually returning to another draft of my novel). My natural artistic temperament is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Walt Whitman. I definitely think of myself as a one-and-done artist. I want to capture the initial inspiration — and keep having that experience over and over again. That’s where the buzz is for me. That is my writing raison d’etre.

But I’ve stuck with the rewrite process of my novel, as difficult as it’s been. Why? I guess it’s because I want to grow as a writer. Rewriting forces you to look at your writing and find ways to improve and refine it. Do it enough, and you’ll grow as a writer.

I’ve come to believe that there are two complementary energies that are needed to be a complete artist: inspiration and integration. You need to be open to inspiration’s calling and you need to be able to work the craft afterword, refining your creative vision and, over time, integrating those improvements into how you approach subsequent projects. Through a commitment to this ying-yang process, you can become the most whole and developed artist you are capable of becoming.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky  (#97 on the Modern Library’s list) is his most famous work.  He is known for his own travels as well as his travel writing, and this is, on its surface, a story of adventurous traveling.  A couple, Port and Kit, take themselves to North Africa, unmooring themselves from their familiar world.  They encounter a culture quite in contrast to their own in all moral and aesthetic values.  They throw themselves into danger from which they cannot, and do not, extract themselves. 
Bowles is a masterful writer.  He does not provide a context for this story, as in “this is how we do things, and this is how they do things.”  Instead, this is an instant immersion, like going to live with a foreign family and having to learn everything about the family—their habits, their version of normal, their history, their private unexplained expectations—and learn language comprehension at the same time.  It is like throwing yourself into a dark deep sea in order to learn how to swim.  You may learn to comprehend, you may learn to swim.  You could instead lose your self and lose your life. In the meantime you see things you never imagined seeing.
This story is a travel story; it is also an existential treatise.  It’s a commentary on culture clash, imperialism, human violence, xenophobia, Western arrogance.  It depicts a culture rebelliously impervious to the expectations of “us.”  It covers love and marriage, the vulnerability of femaleness, ego-insecurity. It is nihilistic, it is beautiful: the world is beautiful but we humans are tiny, we are brutalized.
            The book was written in the aftermath of the Second World War, a time when the world had seemingly lost its foundation and any notion of moralism had cracked apart, shattered into pieces impossible to put back together again.  War has done this over and over, especially war based on one defined people against another defined people, when the definitions must become simplified and the nuances of humanity, the commonalities, must be ignored and negated so that the struggle can achieve its own life and grow epic. For the war to exist, the players must decide to turn away from learning about one another.  The Sheltering Sky is not about World War II. It is about what it is about: two people who for their own reasons accept within themselves the fate they’ve set in motion and make themselves victims of a situation they could easily have avoided by staying home.              
The writer’s great poetic sense and deep intellect are evident in every sentence, making this a novel to be read again and again, if you can stand it.  It has pungency. It is dark and exultant.  It is a multilayered sensory experience with countless indelible images.  The woman of the couple is taken essentially as a slave and (being female) used sexually in most horrendous ways. The men who take her have mythic habitus, huge and black-clad in flowing robes against a relentlessly barren-looking landscape that hides teeming life.  We understand that this couple has agreed, as most travelers do not, to leave behind their set of norms and instead to experience—in the most profound understanding of “experience”—what this new environment will subject them to. They do not turn away.  As part of their agreement, however, they also do not judge, when judgment might be valuable.
It does not end well.  There is no redemption in this story.  Unless, as redemption, you count the prose itself.  A sublime satisfaction is gained at the same time that an unbearable unsettled feeling is delivered. 
            There are many ways to read this novel—as story, as allegory, as philosophy—which is what makes it a great novel, of which there are many but also too few.


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.