Gothick

The Four Volumes of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho

I have been spending some time lately reading 18th century English literature. As an English major at Dartmouth College, my favorite course was Chauncey Chester Loomis’s survey of the 18th century English novel. Although he is known primarily for his work on Arctic exploration, I admired his teaching and only now am filling in some of the gaps of what he taught me, which gaps were mostly the result of my own laziness at the time.

Over the last month, I have read Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which I didn’t much like, and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which I thought was fantastic (reprising my reaction back in the 1960s). Tonight, I have completed Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which was not on my course syllabus, but which was highly regarded as a work of the gothick sensibility of the times.

The Plot of Udolpho (Much Condensed)

The setting for the middle third of the book is the grim Castle of Udolpho in the Pennine Mountains near Venice, Italy. Emily Saint-Aubert, being a minor,must submit to the will of her cruel, unfeeling aunt, Madame Cheron, who marries a dubious Italian bandit chief known as Count Montini.

The Grim Castle of Udolpho

In many ways, the highly atmospheric castle with all its ruined galleries, secret passages, outlandish tapestries, and the cavorting banditti who make the castle their headquarters is the star of the novel. It is hard for a 21st century male such as myself to admire a frequently fainting heroine such as Mlle. Saint-Aubert. I managed to stick it out for the novel’s full 620 pages because Ann Radcliffe is really a superior writer. The things I didn’t like about it were more the result of the culture of the times than any deficit in the author’s abilities. There are some beautiful passages and not a few negligible verses.
 

Dostoyevsky Describes Trump Voters

The Supporters of Trump: A Great Mystery?

I am re-reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky translation of Fyodor Dostoeyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Suddenly, I saw the following passage, which predicted the emergence of Trump and his supporters:

Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he’s by no means stupid, but he’s so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him. I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: “Well, gentlemen, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all these logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!” That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that’s how man is arranged. And all this for the emptiest of reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one sometimes even positively must (this is my [i.e. Dostoyevsky’s] idea now).

 

Incorrigible Bookworm

Picture of Me at the Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

Sometimes, I just have to sit up and take a good look at myself. Where in Blue Blazes did this Bookworm come from? There was no one like me in the family. I was looked at by my family with a combination of contempt and admiration. When I was doing well in high school (I was the valedictorian of my class), I was referred to as “the walking dictionary.” I was a person of whom prodigies were expected … in the normal course of events. People expected my help with their homework—even if I knew zilch about the subject.

In fact, books were for me an escape. I was a sickly child, stricken by numerous allergies and frequent and debilitating headaches. The latter turned out to be a brain tumor in my pituitary gland. When I came out of surgery in the fall of 1966, I kept asking myself, “Why me?” I went almost overnight from a devout Catholic to a lapsed Catholic. I continued to suffer various physical and mental after-effects because of the lifelong steroid therapy that ensued.

I was never any good at athletics. For exercise, I liked to walk a lot. I couldn’t even drive a car until I reached the age of forty, and I no longer had to take a blood pressure medication (Catapres) that caused me to fall asleep in moving vehicles.

And so, at an early age, I turned to books. Was it because my mother used to tell me fantastic stories about fairy princesses in the dark forest that she told me in Hungarian? I couldn’t really read English with any proficiency until the third or fourth grade.

I started to accumulate books at home, causing some friction with my parents. They didn’t like to see me spending money for books at Scroeder’s Bookstore on Cleveland’s Public Square. Once, when my cousin Emil saw me reading Tom Sawyer in the living room, he grabbed the book out of my hands and hurled it at the floor, causing it to bounce. “This is what I think of books!” he said while I wondered what was coming next.

Of course, I love books. Even though I have donated over a thousand books from my collection to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I still read as much as ever, if not more so.

 

How King Kong Almost Didn’t Get Made

King Kong (1933)

In an essay about Soviet writer Isaac Babel appearing in her book The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, Elif Batuman describes a meeting between the writer and an American prisoner:

A shot-down American pilot, barefoot but elegant, neck like a column, dazzlingly white teeth, his uniform covered with oil and dirt. He asks me worriedly: Did I maybe commit a crime by fighting against Soviet Russia? Our position is strong. O the scent of Europe, coffee, civilization, strength, ancient culture, many thoughts. I watch him, can’t let him go. A letter from Major Fauntleroy: things in Poland are bad, there’s no constitution, the Bolsheviks are strong … An endless conversation with [Frank] Mosher, I sink into the past, they’ll shake you up, Mosher, ekh, Conan Doyle, letters to New York. Is Mosher fooling—he asks frantically what Bolshevism is. A sad, heart-warming impression.

It seems that Frank Mosher was none other than Captain Merian Caldwell Cooper, the future producer of King Kong in 1933. Their encounter took place in Galicia in 1920, when Cooper was a member of the Kosciuszko Air Squadron.

Captain Merian C. Cooper (Alias Frank Mosher)

Cooper was captured by horsemen attached to Budyonny’s Cossack Cavalry. He would have been killed on the spot had not an “unnamed English-speaking Bolshevik” saved his life. That Bolshevik was one of the greatest Russian writers of the 20th Century, Isaac Babel, who was served with the Bolshevik cavalry, collecting material for his great book of stories entitled Red Cavalry.

Somehow, Cooper made his way back to the U.S., along with a fellow flyer named Ernest  B. Schoedsack, whom he was to hire in later years to direct King Kong.

 

 

 

Sherlock Holmes et al

A Book That Introduced Me to Some Great Writers

Sherlock Holmes was never the only game in town. Granted, he was easily the best of the Victorian and Edwardian detectives; but there were a number of others worth reading. When I came upon the above book years ago, I was introduced to a whole constellation of British crime-fighters. The book was edited by Sir Hugh Greene (1910-1987), brother of novelist Graham Greene and director-general of the BBC during the 1960s. In all, he produced four books honoring lesser-known British and American detectives:

  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  • Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971)
  • The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973)
  • The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1979)

The original volume was by far the best of the series. The only author I followed from the three later volumes was Jacques Futrelle, creator of the Thinking Machine detective stories, who drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912.

For a number of years, I sought collections of several authors recommended in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The ones who interested me the most were:

  • Arthur Morrison, who, in addition to his Martin Hewitt stories wrote the very Dickensian The Hole in the Wall and the excellent Dorrington Deed Box
  • Clifford Ashdown, author of the Romney Pringle stories
  • Baroness Orczy, the Hungarian woman author who gave us The Scarlet Pimpernel also wrote a series about a lady journalist in London named Polly Burton (The Old Man in the Corner stories)
  • R. Austin Freeman’s Edwardian Doctor Thorndyke forensic investigation stories appeared in several volumes
  • William Hope Hodgson wrote a series of stories about a ghost investigator named Carnacki
  • Ernest Bramah, a tea merchant, gave us a blind detective named Max Carrados, who was actually able to read newspapers by feeling the ink on the newsprint

My favorites from the above list are Bramah and Morrison, with Orczy and Freeman not far behind. Unfortunately, most of their books are devilishly hard to find.

 

Repeat Performances

I Frequently Re-Read Books That Have Impressed Me

This year I have re-read ten books since the start of 2019, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It has been eleven years since I have read any Conrad, back when I had finally finished Under Western Eyes, which I had started back in college. The main reason I ever re-read a book is to see whether I have somehow changed in the intervening years. Very occasionally, I forget that I have read a particular work in the past and go through it a second time, not realizing my mistake until I check my reading log. Below is a list of 2019 re-reads:

  • Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
  • Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • Sean O’Casey: Juno and the Paycock
  • Virginia Woolf: Monday or Tuesday, Eight Stories. I re-read this one by accident.
  • John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. I will probably re-read a number of other books about Mexico in the next few months, most of which I have not touched for over 30 years.
  • William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Multiple re-reads.
  • G. K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson and The Poet and the Lunatics. I frequently re-read Chesterton for sheer enjoyment.
  • J. E. Neale: Queen Elizabeth I

A Joy to Read Any Number of Times

As my Yucatán vacation draws close, I will probably re-read Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico; Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico!; and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and a few other books.

 

Cogitus Interruptus

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Laurence Sterne

He was a Yorkshire Anglican clergyman who just happened to write one of the five greatest novels ever written, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) gave us The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1761), a book that can be read and re-read with pleasure over an entire lifetime. It was in the mid 1960s that I first encountered it in Chauncey C. Loomis’s class on “The Eighteenth Century English Novel.” Loomis was my favorite professor of English, which happened to be my major at Dartmouth. I am still re-living that class and re-reading the books that he assigned. That makes his class one of the best I ever took.

Tristram Shandy revolves around four plot points that would seem to be pretty thin. All the plot points involve either interruptions or “abridgments” of various sorts:

  1. Just as Mr Shandy and his wife are approaching orgasm, the latter asks her husband if he has rewound their clock.
  2. When Tristram is being born, the forceps of Dr Slop, who presides at the birth, crush the little lad’s nose.
  3. As a result of a miscommunication with one of the servants, the new baby is christened Tristram instead of Trismegistus.
  4. Tristram is accidentally circumcised when a window crashes down upon his foreskin.

How these four main plot points are stretched out over some five hundred pages of warmth and hilarity is a major miracle. The plot is positively Ptolemaic, with little epicycles and interruptions that create hilarious interludes.

It has always amazed me that it is the young Tristram Shandy who is narrating the novel. Yet he is not born until midway through the book, after we have been exposed to numerous incidents which the young Shandy could not have experienced as he was still in utero.

I can see myself coming back to Tristram Shandy again and again, paging at random to the beginning of a sequence, and reveling in it again … and again.