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Score Another For The Philistines

Posted by acdtest on January 24, 2004

Score Another For The Philistines

The murderous onslaught on high culture by the philistine horde continues, the latest salvo proceeding from the venerable New York Times as outlined in an interview with New York Times Book Review executive editor, Bill Keller.

The nub of it:

He [Keller] promised “dramatic changes” in the Sunday section [of the Book Review] now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom.

And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. “The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world,” Keller says. “Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction.”

What’s more, if you’re perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we’re told. After all, says Keller, somebody’s got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.




Posted in Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature, Print Media | Comments Off on Score Another For The Philistines

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

Posted by acdtest on January 13, 2004

Let’s Hear It For Trash!

ots of play has been given this post by weblogger Michael of 2Blowhards contrasting the professional movie- and book-persons’ view of trash and art generally, and in the books world in particular. The post is of ghastly length, but still interesting reading written as it is by a long-time professional observer of the arts biz, tendentiously biased though his views may be.

As an indefatigable cheerleader for all things pop cultural, and a hater of all things even marginally elitist even though himself a ressentiment-saturated crypto-elitist, it’s not surprising Michael’s post is a thinly veiled if uncharacteristically muted advocacy of books valued by pop culture, and one which makes the contrasting observation that professional movie people — whose business is, after all, rooted in trash — are, generally speaking, free and open-minded sorts accepting of both art and trash and well able to laugh at themselves, and professional book people, generally speaking, uptight, long-faced, unreasoning enemies of trash who take themselves way too seriously.

What was most interesting to me, however, was the comments thread attached to Michael’s post; a thread some 86 messages long at last count, and consisting of thoughtful and fairly lengthy comments by readers responding to Michael’s call for “any thoughts about what a more down-to-earth and pleasure-centric view of reading-and-writing might be like” (nice touch, that), and for a ‘fessing up to “any guilty reading-and-books secrets” his weblog’s visitors may have.

In that 86-message-long comments thread, the majority of commenters standing shoulder to shoulder with Michael’s take on things (Michael is forever saying or implying he encourages discussion and debate, but what he’s really on about, always, is soliciting agreement with his own views), there were but two clearly dissenting voices.

Said commenter Ulf, bravely:

Living, like I do, in the ultimate low-brow city, Las Vegas, I nonetheless would consider myself a book person, having worked in NYC publishing before moving here.

I admit that I’ve read very little genre fiction or whatever you want to call it. But not really for snobbish reasons, I’ve tried, I really have, but more often than not I find such books unintentionally funny, when the author threatens to trip over his own sentences.

To me, the real pleasure in reading is a pleasure of language, which is probably why I read a great deal of poetry. Contrary to popular belief, there are a number of fabulous living or recently deceased poets whose work seems to bring the kind of pleasure many who posted here are looking for. Why are they not buying that stuff? And they aren’t since contemporary poetry sells about 500 copies on a very, very good day.

To plug just a few: Fred Chappell (also a fine fiction writer), Kelly Cherry, James Merrill (who died too young), Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, Michael Hartnett and Tony Hoagland.

The pleasure of a well-written sentence/stanza far outweighs any need for literature to represent reality as I see it. The most fabulous fiction writer of the last couple of decades was W.G. Sebald, whose books, difficult though they may be, I challenge anyone to put down unfinished? I once found myself re-reading “The Rings of Saturn” three times before moving on to the next book, all within a few days.

The genre fiction I’ve tried to read has just not had that kind of pleasurable effect on me. My last attempt was “The Da Vinci Code,” surely a popular book by anyone’s standard, and I found myself laughing so hardily at the awkward prose and repetitive cliches (not to mention inept descriptions) that I could not follow the story for very long. I eventually gave up on the thing about 200 pages in.

And, just as bravely, commenter Jason followed with:

I happen to enjoy reading the New York Review, Proust, and Faulkner — so I guess that puts me in the books category. Not that I don’t also enjoy lighter fare like campy films,, and fun short fiction. But there’s something deeply satisfying about rich, finely crafted prose that the cheap shit can’t replicate. Trashy novelas may offer ephemeral pleasures. Great novels stay with you. I find lines from Baldwin or even Kirk Vardenoe coming back to me at random points in the day. They speak to something beyond the immediate circumstances of their construction, they achieve something higher and purer. In short, they offer the reader wisdom, not just pleasure.

I absolutely agree that postmodern literary crit is pontifical dreck. And self-consciously “literary” fiction is unbearable. But the best stuff in life requires effort. And I’ve found the most satisfying fiction is indeed multi-layered and difficult and, yes, literary.

The ratio (2/86) is about what would be expected in a matter such as this, but still encouraging. It suggests the poisonous pop cultural tide has not totally succeeded in overwhelming appreciation of what’s genuinely important, worthwhile, and, yes — Michael’s tendentious insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding — “pleasure-centric” in literature.

A small encouragement, to be sure. But an encouragement nevertheless.

Posted in Aesthetic Commentary, Books, Cultural Commentary, Literature | Comments Off on Let’s Hear It For Trash!


Posted by acdtest on December 1, 2003


henever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then I account it high time to get to sea….

So Ishmael. More prosaic, I, at the first damp and drizzly November day of each year, account it high time to plunge once more into the pages of Melville’s enduring masterpiece, there, for a time, to sweetly perish deep sunk in its overrich language, crowded detail and incident, and mystic and metaphysical loomings as would Tashtego have sweetly perished deep sunk when falling head first into the great Heidelburgh Tun of a beheaded sperm whale had not that leviathan’s capacious case been almost completely baled of its pure, unctuously rich, sweetly fragrant spermaceti.

Melville’s epic yarn of crazy old Ahab’s blasphemous, God-and-Heaven-challenging, monomaniacal quest for vengeance against the inscrutable, unknown, but still reasoning thing behind the unreasoning pasteboard mask of the visible object that was its agent, which visible object was Moby Dick, never fails to engage and enthrall no matter how many times revisited. Most now will aver, as do I, that if there be such a thing as The Great American Novel, Moby-Dick is it.

How, then, to explain the prominent coming on stage of the tale that most strikingly un-American (and un-Christian) “muffled mystery”; the spectral, sinister Persian, Fedallah? And how to explain the importance attached to him by, and his singular intimacy with, the mad but otherwise quintessentially American Ahab?

Stubb, “wise Stubb,” seems all but convinced that Fedallah is the very Devil himself in disguise, with his tail tucked up and coiled away in his pocket so as not to give himself away, and there on board the Pequod to conduct a bargain between himself and mad Ahab concerning the finding and killing of the White Whale. For a more modern, critical view, a Google search on Fedallah turns up just such thoughts, but not quite as literal, the modern sensibility seemingly more comfortable in declaring Fedallah a concrete representation of the demonic in the world.

But, surely, this cannot be all as it would then be but a mere superfluity in the context of the tale as one need do nothing more than clap an eye on crazy old Ahab for a surfeit of the demonic enough for two worlds.

Good and necessary reason there must be, however, for the prominent place given this sinister, un-American character in this most American of tales. Nothing in Moby-Dick, from greatest to smallest, is there without good and necessary reason, the palpable presence of Fedallah no exception.

And Melville is not parsimonious with his clues touching this spectral Parsee. For but two among many, we have,

• Meantime, Fedallah was calmly eyeing the right whale’s head, and ever and anon glancing from the deep wrinkles there to the lines in his own hand. And Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parsee’s shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with, and lengthen Ahab’s.

• But though his [Ahab’s] whole life was now become one watch on deck; and though the Parsee’s mystic watch was without intermission as his own; yet these two never seemed to speak – one man to the other – unless at long intervals some passing unmomentous matter made it necessary. Though such a potent spell seemed secretly to join the twain; openly, and to the awe-struck crew, they seemed pole-like asunder. If by day they chanced to speak one word; by night, dumb men were both, so far as concerned the slightest verbal interchange. At times, for longest hours, without a single hail, they stood far parted in the starlight; Ahab in his scuttle, the Parsee by the mainmast; but still fixedly gazing upon each other; as if in the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow, in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned substance.

What need has Ahab to speak aloud in words to his inmost spirit, his driving principle, or it with him? It’s for our benefit that Melville makes flesh in Fedallah’s unsavory spectral presence that sinister, un-American spirit and principle the better for us to see, feel, and understand how coolly and unconcernedly it consigns to perdition those whom it possesses. That “cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor… that against all natural lovings and longings…recklessly [makes one] ready to do what in [his] own proper, natural heart [he] durst not so much as dare.”

Possessed by such a horror, wonder ye, then, at mad Ahab’s anguished cry, “Is Ahab, Ahab?” And would ye not cry as much thyself for thyself were thee so possessed?

UPDATE (5 December at 2:20 PM Eastern): Weblogger Aaron Haspel of God Of The Machine takes exception to my attempt at coopting Melville’s prose style.

Posted in Literature | Comments Off on Loomings

Writing In Prose Fiction

Posted by acdtest on July 15, 2003

Writing In Prose Fiction

eblogger Michael Blowhard has some well-informed and intriguing thoughts on the importance of the writing in a work of prose fiction.

How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing — I always think of it as “writin'” — in a work of prose fiction?

I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin’ is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don’t see — given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary — how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all.

Interesting observation that last, and one thoroughly dependent on just what one means by “the writing,” or, as Michael puts it, “the writin'”. I confess I’m unable to get a secure handle on just what Michael means by his use of the term, but he seems to be saying that, in a curious way beyond my ability to comprehend, the writing can somehow be disconnected from the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction as his “There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all” appears to suggest. In fact, both those cases are something of a contradiction in terms, and quite impossible.

There are two fundamental elements that go to make a work of prose fiction, both of which are sine qua non. First, and foremost of course, is the story. No story, no work of prose fiction. Lousy story, lousy work of prose fiction. Nothing will save a work of prose fiction that’s absent a first-rate story. Second, is human characters (whether they take actual human form or not) through whom the story is played out.

At bottom, that’s pretty much the whole deal. It would seem all the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction — character development, narrative structure, pacing, plotting, “color” (i.e., excitation of sensations of time and place), and tone (e.g., lyrical, dramatic, epical, confessional, etc.) — are simply details of construction.

But then, as we all by now should know, in the details is where God and the Devil reside, and those details, all of them, are entirely dependent on, and inseparable from…the writing. If the writing, “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” is, say, notable for its genuine poetic expressiveness but in some way fails to serve at least adequately the story and the characters as well as all the details of construction above enumerated — which is to say, fails its sole raison d’être — then, its genuine poetic expressiveness notwithstanding, it’s bad prose fiction writing.

Lolita is a great and powerful novel not because Nabokov writes beautiful-sounding, evocative, even poetic prose “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence” (which indeed he does), but because he’s got a great story to tell, great human characters through whom the story is played out, and because word-to-word, and sentence-by-sentence his writing unselfconsciously serves supremely well the story, the characters, and all the details that go to make a work of prose fiction, the resulting gestalt making this particular instance a great and powerful novel as it could hardly otherwise do.

Another example of a great and powerful novel is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The story is undeniably great, and the characters undeniably intriguing, but the writing appears perfectly straightforward, almost ordinary if quietly elegant, and it seems there’s nothing special about it involved at all — until, that is, one reaches novel’s end and realizes with a jolt of amazement that in less than 200 pages Fitzgerald has managed through that writing to create a menagerie of characters and an entire created world that are so full and rich and real that it’s impossible to see how it all could have been limned in less than a four-inch-thick-War-and-Peace-length volume.

One helluva gestalt, that.

On the other hand, the writing in the novels of my acquaintance of John Updike, beautiful and beautifully crafted as it all is “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” fails in some way (different ways in different novels, if I remember correctly) to fulfill the imperative of its raison d’être, and in consequence the novels, in my not-so-humble opinion, fail as well, beautiful though the writing qua writing may be.

Truly great prose fiction writing — the sort noted above in the cases of Nabokov and Fitzgerald — is a kind of magic, and the gestalt that emerges as its consequence, though expected, ultimately a mystery. The one thing that can be stated with certainty about truly great writing in a work of prose fiction, however, is that, like a first-rate story and human characters, it’s an element sine qua non.

Posted in Literature, Writing | Comments Off on Writing In Prose Fiction

Harry Potter And The Elitist

Posted by acdtest on July 10, 2003

Harry Potter And The Literary Elitist

‘m late to the party, I know, having only in the past week taken up the Harry Potter books, compelled finally by the unprecedented publishing success of the series. I’m no fan of genre fiction generally, and near the very bottom of my list is fantasy fiction (I managed to get through The Lord of the Rings many years ago, but just barely), edged out of last place only by science fiction, a genre I most heartily loathe largely because of its hey-look-at-me use of the weird and paradoxical in physical and astronomical theory, and its risible literary pretensions.

I’ve now read Books 1-4 of the Harry Potter series (I’ll not read Book 5 until it’s available in paperback), and I’m somewhat chagrined to confess I found them all rather charming (which is, after all, only fit), even engaging (I read all four books — some 1800 pages — within the single span of some five days; for me a record of sorts). J.K. Rowling is clearly a storyteller of considerable narrative gift who immediately calls to mind no-one so much as the Conan Doyle of the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, and a writer of a not inconsiderable fantastical imagination. The Harry Potter books are, for the most part, a clever and skillful patchwork of fairytale, saga, and mythological motifs and devices intelligently and imaginatively applied, with a soupçon of Star Trek and Star Wars, and a fair bit more than a soupçon of English boarding school movies cum Nancy Drew and Andy Hardy.

And it all somehow works.

One might be tempted to level the charge that the motifs and devices, as well as the various character types that act them out in the Potter books, are cliché or stereotypical, and one would be wrong. They’re neither clichés nor stereotypes but archetypes, which is why, in the hands of someone with the requisite imaginative narrative gift and skills, they all can be employed again and again, and still remain fresh, and psychologically resonant and affective.

As charming and engaging as the books are, however, there’s about them something I find troubling. As A.S Byatt put it in her Op-Ed piece on the Potter books for the New York Times (which piece in large part, but not entirely, echoes many of my own thoughts): “Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous.” I would go further and say that magic world evidences a seeming dogged, even dogmatic, eschewal of the numinous. The reason for this eschewal is itself a mystery; one for which I’ll not even attempt to provide a solution. That the books are written for children (their surprising number of adult readers notwithstanding and beside the point) is no answer at all. Neither is it a justification or excuse for the apparent by-design avoidance of even so much as a suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the up-front magic.

The series’ central schtick — its hook — is the portrayal of the magic world of wizards and witches — in Hogwarts and environs as well as in the Muggle world — in matter-of-fact, quotidian, even utilitarian terms, and that’s a big part of the series’ charm and appeal. But in some measure, and always at work in the deep background at least, must be sensed a numinous source of the magic in that world, good and evil. Absent that necessary sense, what one ends up with is nothing more resonant than the illusionist magic of the stage magician, or the cartoon magic of a TV witch sitcom.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that the Harry Potter books ought to be something their author never intended them to be. I’m saying merely that in each of the first four volumes I’ve read, there came a point in the narrative that fairly pleaded, cried out even, for a deft suggestion of some deeper mystery behind the outward magic — the chapter “The Forbidden Forest” in The Sorcerer’s Stone; the chapter “The Heir of Slytherin” in The Chamber of Secrets; the chapter “The Servant of Lord Voldemort” in The Prisoner of Azkaban; and the chapter “Flesh, Blood, and Bone” in The Goblet of Fire — the heeding of which plea, even by something as tacky and dumb as The Force of the Star Wars movies (although an imaginatively gifted storyteller such as Rowling could certainly come up with something a great deal better), giving to the whole a resonance, depth, contextual believability, and sense of the special it could in no way otherwise achieve. But instead, in each case the plea went unacknowledged and unanswered, with the unhappy result that the books are experienced as a mere entertainment and diversion of the moment, neither different nor distinguishable in aesthetic or philosophic thrust and substance from any number of TV series targeted at the MTV crowd, or from big-screen bubblegum flicks.

That’s all rather a pity for us readers. It’s not often a gifted storyteller like Ms. Rowling comes along, and hungry little piggies that we are, when one does, we want the maximum she’s capable of providing. In the instant case, as good as the feeding was, one is left with the feeling one has somehow been cheated at the trough.

Posted in Literature | Comments Off on Harry Potter And The Elitist

16 June 1904

Posted by acdtest on June 16, 2003

16 June 1904

Posted in Books, Literature | Comments Off on 16 June 1904

The Emperor of Ice Cream

Posted by acdtest on May 31, 2003

The Emperor of Ice Cream

t a suggestion of mine of some weeks ago, weblogger Aaron Haspel of God Of The Machine takes a crack at an explication of Wallace Stevens’s cryptic poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream. As, unlike Aaron, I’m no student of poetry, I offer him my gratitude for his effort. However, neither my gratitude nor lack of qualification will prevent me from disagreeing in parts with Aaron’s take on this superb and enigmatic poem, which goes,

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

My first disagreement with Aaron is on a general point of approach to poetic analysis. Aaron asserts that in an attempt at such analysis, “pillaging the poet’s life and [other] work[s]” may be “useful.” To my way of thinking, such an approach is a cardinal error in the analysis of any artwork. Such an approach is not only never useful, but often times can be positively misleading. Any work of art worthy of the name is always self-contained in the sense that it contains within itself everything necessary for its complete understanding, even when it alludes or points to something outside itself to convey or capture meaning.

And so it is with this Stevens’s poem, notwithstanding Aaron’s,

I also recommended pillaging the poet’s life and work, should it prove useful. Here it does. Stevens was a wealthy and cultivated man who knew Key West well, which is probably where this poem takes place, since ice-cream was commonly served at funerals. His poetry has a single theme: hedonism. For Stevens all is illusion but immediate sensation. “Let be be finale of seem” means “Abandon all effort to give meaning to existence, and take what comfort you can from the roiling life around you.”

None of this is useful in understanding TEoIC, and in fact can lead the reader to a central misunderstanding as it did Aaron, which misunderstanding will become apparent as this little piece proceeds.

Aaron objects to Stevens’s use of what he (Aaron) calls the “imperative tense.”

[T]he poem is snobbish: Stevens invites the reader to sneer at the characters of the poem as from a hill. It is written entirely in the imperative, except for the last line of each stanza, to some unspecified hearer. Imperative tense, used this way, enforces distance: when the boxing announcer says “Let’s get ready to ruuuumble!” you can be sure that you (or he) won’t be doing any rumbling, personally. Stevens takes special pains to remove himself, and his reader, from the scene, the better to hold his nose.

But Stevens neither “hold[s] his nose” nor employs “imperative tense.” The entire poem employs the rhetorical device of apostrophe, giving the work an urgent force and weight it otherwise would lack. The poem’s tone is elevated, but is absent so much as a trace of “snobbish[ness]” or nose-holding.

So, what is this enigmatic poem about anyway, and what is it saying?

The first thing that arrests one (this one, at any rate) is the striking duality embodied in the poem’s two-stanza totality. The duality of Eros and Thanatos, of Life and Death, existentially (and psychoanalytically) considered. The unrestrained libidinous exuberance of lines 1-3 of the first stanza:

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

in resonant and polar opposition to the ashen morbidity of lines 4-6 of the second:

And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.

And then the homely details of ordinary life and custom at this homely and ordinary wake — of the living in lines 3-6 of the first stanza:

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.

and of the dead in lines 1-3 of the second:

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once

And then the kickers; first, in the closing two lines of the first stanza:

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

and last, in the closing two lines of the second:

Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

both of which closing couplets refer to the same thing.

We’re at a wake. But despite what a wake is (the “seems”), it’s not death — which is an ending — that should be our concern, but the will to the here and now (the “be,” which is always a beginning) of vital, superabundant, ongoing life with its “concupiscent curds”, which will should always be “the finale of [every] seems,” even a seems such as this, and on which will the “lamp” (i.e., the sun) should “affix its beam,” so that we may the more clearly see that it’s truly “the only emperor…the emperor of ice cream,” which is the life force itself in all its rich and overflowing concupiscent yumminess.

Or something like that.

Posted in Literature | Comments Off on The Emperor of Ice Cream

The Hound Of The Baskervilles

Posted by acdtest on January 20, 2003

The Hound Of The Baskervilles — No, Really

watched the PBS Masterpiece Theater adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles last night. Well, it was sort of like Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. OK, a little like Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. I mean, it did retain the title, most of the incidents, and almost all the characters. Against that, however, the writer and producer of this adaptation felt the need to invent new incidents (one of which — I kid you not — they lifted straight from the 1939 Hollywood movie version of the Hound), and pretty much rob the characters of all their Doylesque charm. In short, the production was thoroughly vapid with nothing to recommend it except the (presumably) Devonshire locations which were appropriately Dartmoory-foggy, and deliciously and darkly spooky.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps the quintessential Sherlock Holmes tale. It has, in a single novella-length story, just about everything that makes the tales of the Sherlockian canon so magical: A rich 19th-century-England ambience, a nifty puzzle mystery to solve with lots of opportunity for demonstrations of Holmes’s deductive reasoning (this tale — the only one in the canon — with a generous dollop of the supernatural added), great plotting and dialogue, wonderfully weird or quirky secondary characters (that is, weird or quirky by 19th century standards), and of course Holmes and Watson and their relationship, the centerpiece of all the tales.

With all that going for it, one would imagine an adaptor would by and large have it made, and need but choose the right actors for the parts, make a few dialogue adjustments and additions, do some small adjusting and rearranging of scene details, and Voilà!; a first-rate and engaging adaptation.

That’s what one would imagine, but apparently not these adaptors. These adaptors saw fit, for instance, to make the famously tall, slender, and hawk-faced Holmes a man of average height and build, and pleasant of countenance (and had him doing his cocaine thing in situations in which Holmes wouldn’t even think of shooting up); Watson, the consummately solid bourgeois Englishman, a weaselly-looking wisp of a man who would be better cast as one of Doyle’s villains; and the relationship between the two a relationship of equals rather than the endearing master and acolyte of the original.

Fit also saw these adaptors to chuck the signature opening Baker Street scene which sets the tone and provides the jumping off place for this tale as it does for most of the tales, and introduce in its place a concocted prologue that not only does nothing to enhance either story or suspense, but blunts the very strangeness that sets this tale apart from all others in the canon.

I could go on, but simply don’t have the heart for it. There was so much fundamentally wrong with this production that minute by minute one fought the urge to just switch it off by hoping, hope against hope, that the next scene would finally put things back on track, and in some way redeem what had gone before.

Never happened.

Too bad — and coming from a Brit crew, unforgivable.

Posted in Literature, Television | Comments Off on The Hound Of The Baskervilles

A Mystery Needful Of Solution

Posted by acdtest on May 15, 2002

A Mystery Needful Of Solution

efore writing (manufacturing would be a more accurate term) my own, I never read a murder mystery all the way through. No need to. Got whodunit by page 50 or so. No point reading further. Or so I’ve elsewhere said on this weblog. Well, it’s not exactly true that I never read a murder mystery all the way through, but it’s an often-made-by-me slip, the reason for which will become clear by the time this little piece reaches its close.

Quite some years ago I was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident that left me bed-bound for almost a year. In an effort to ease my forced confinement, my then father-in-law brought a gift: The Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Although I managed a smile of gratitude as I accepted the unexpected present, it crossed my mind that in buying me that collection of stories the not-so-old man had suffered a premature Senior Moment. A copyeditor for the New York Times, he and I had discussed literature often, and he was well aware of my distaste for, and contemptuous dismissal of, genre fiction in all its forms, yet here he was presenting me with two volumes worth of the stuff. Perhaps, I thought, it was a joke of some sort I hadn’t quite yet caught on to, or perhaps he’d not had merely a premature Senior Moment, but had gone stone-cold barking mad.

I wisely decided to defer immediate judgment on the matter. As I was a virtual prisoner with nowhere to go and nothing but time on my hands, what could it hurt to at least give the things a read, or a try at a read, as the case might be. Time enough later for a final decision on the question of my father-in-law’s mental competency.

So, beginning at the beginning, I turned to the opening novella-length story, A Study in Scarlet, and began to read.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.

What odd but curiously pleasant syntax was the thought that crossed my mind, and the thought passed, I continued to read.

Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as assistant surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

Just the names seemed to bristle with an exotic energy, and encouraged, I read on…for the next two days straight with almost no sleep, during which time I read all sixty stories — all 1300 pages of them — and then went back to start reading them all over again.

I wasn’t sure at just what point I’d become hooked, and even less sure of what it was that hooked me, but hooked I was, and the mystery of how that came about is for me today still a greater mystery than any Holmes and Watson ever undertook to unravel; one that even after all these years remains elusive of fully satisfactory solution.

One thing was certain, and for me still a source of some wonderment: These stories are surely not litraschur. Heart of Darkness is litraschur. The Dead is litraschur. The Half-skinned Steer is litraschur. But The Adventure of the Speckled Band, or even the almost-novel The Hound of the Baskervilles? No way. Not, at any rate, outside the halls of academe with its postmodern lit courses in which novels such as Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Spiderman comic books are considered litraschur.

But there I was — and here I am. Hooked on…on…works of detective fiction(!). Genre fiction(!!). Prole-pandering-barely-worth-the-paper-they’re-printed-on pulp fiction(!!!).


So, how to explain it. I mean, it really does need some sort of explanation or other. But as I’ve said, I can’t explain it in any fully satisfactory way. Yes, it’s true Conan Doyle makes astonishingly real his two central characters and the milieu in which they lived and worked — so real that one finds oneself needing to ferret out, when they’re not explicitly given (and just to be certain, even when they are), the exact dates and physical locations of the stories’ action. One just feels a burning need to know that. And, yes, the stories chronicle a friendship rare today, and perhaps rare at any time. And, yes, the era of Holmes and Watson is wonderfully intimate, warmly romantic, and altogether appealing, especially to 21st-century Americans. And, yes, the totally self-reliant character of Holmes is individualistic and nobly aristocratic (nobly, that is, if one has escaped being contaminated by things postmodern and PC), and his consummate skill in, and dedication to, his profession superhuman even if somewhat unbelievable, all of which is laudable, inspiring and exciting of admiration. The Holmes-Watson canon is all these things. But that still doesn’t provide the explanation looked for, although it’s surely part of it.

The best I can muster as explanation — and I’m fully cognizant my best is thoroughly inadequate — is that the Holmes-Watson stories, even though technically detective fiction, each have the quality of being a chapter of a great and heroic if urbane saga; tales told orally around a pre-literate communal campfire which tell of a time when a man’s individual actions had comprehensible, direct and immediate effect on his environment and those populating it, without mediation, mitigation or intensification by technologies the workings of which are comprehensible only to experts; a time when one could “learn at a glance to distinguish the history of [a] man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs”; a time when “by a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs…a man’s calling is plainly revealed.”

Such a time is long past, and we know we’ll never again see its like. We feel a quiet sorrow at that, and mourn its passing, but know there’s nothing for it. We find, however, we can be granted a meaningful measure of solace and pleasure by a well-told saga of its days of glory, which is the Holmes-Watson canon. And that, I think, is the secret of the power of these stories, and an at least partial explanation for why a literary elitist such as myself senses something magic about them, and can find himself hooked by that magic. And, for me, that lifts them above, and makes them different from, all other members of their genre in my experience.

As I said, thoroughly inadequate, but the best I can muster.

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