Hi, folks! I have been pressed for time, lately (lately? Please. This is nothing new, and we all know it) and I am way behind on reviews. I “definitely” have four book reviews outstanding and “technically” have another three as well (texts I assigned to my composition students, which I have naturally read and should review at some point…). Anyway, the only way for me to get to them, at this point, is with some mini-reviews or less-than-organized thoughts. I recently read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, too, for which I do hope to provide a full review (because it is on multiple of my challenge lists for 2013).
The following three are all works of non-fiction (one biography and two literary theory type texts) so I feel it is somewhat appropriate to present them together. Here we go!
1. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno — 4.0 out of 4.0
This is perhaps one of the best biographies that I have ever read. No, in fact, it is probably the best biography I have ever read, as the other works which come close, in my mind, are actually autobiographies (Mark Twain’s, for instance). The authors spent eight years researching Salinger’s life and works in order to get at the truth behind this brilliant but troubled writer, and their exhaustive studies have resulted in a masterful portrait and new understanding of the man who was Holden Caulfield.
The book is divided into four parts, and these four parts directly correspond to the four steps of Advaida Vedanta Hinduism. These four steps included “Apprenticeship” (Brahmacharya); “Householder Duties” (Garhasthya); “Withdrawal from Society” (Vanaprasthya); and “Renunciation of the World” (Sanyasa). Separating the biography into these sections, which clearly, then, correspond to chronological portions of Salinger’s life (personal and writing lives), helps the reader to make sense out of the mystery that was J.D. Salinger. Why did he retreat from society? But, more than this, Shields and Salerno dig deeper and expose the sometimes hypocrisy of Salinger’s self-exile – including the ways he would stay in touch with the world, though on the fringes, and the moments when he would reappear for just long enough, and in only the “necessary” ways, in order to refuel the flame of public interest.
What is truly wonderful, too, about this biography is that it is not titled too far toward fanatic praise (such as the Paul Alexander biography) nor toward outright personal animosity (such as the works of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, as well as the Ian Hamilton biography). Ultimately, the two biographers, here, present a notably balanced picture of the man and writer. Much of Salinger’s history and personal relationships are either related for the first time in this work or presented with corroborating evidence such as has been missing in previous works, due to the fact that no one would speak about Salinger while he was alive.
Some have experienced mixed feelings about whether or not to read this biography, as it seems to be an invasion of the privacy Salinger held so dear. I would argue, however, and I think the two authors of this work would agree, that Salinger did not intend or expect his life and work to go unexamined forever – just while he was alive. Part of his religious teachings included the commitment to one’s art, without the fame or fortune which might come with it. Evidence suggests that he did continue writing, and likely very much, over a long period of time, but he chose not to publish that writing for variety of reasons, most of which had to do with his religious beliefs (though there are other elements to this decision, as Shields and Salerno mention). Ultimately, it seems Salinger left instructions for many works to be published following a certain posthumous waiting period. Since this is the case, one can, I believe, feel comfortable reading this intimate, sometimes expose, knowing that Salinger was likely perfectly aware that, following his death, his secret world would come out.
The structure of the work might work more for some than for others, as it is set up similar to a screenplay (which is perhaps appropriate, considering the documentary and the book were planned together and developed together, as a kind of single entity). It worked well for me in certain parts, but at other times I found myself wishing for a traditional narrative form. Ultimately, though, I find myself with very little to criticize. As a fan of Salinger (so much so that this very blog’s name is inspired by his work), I can and do highly recommend it.
2. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster — 3.75 out of 4.0
E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel heralded the now enormous scholarship on theory and criticism of the novel and the writing process. In this work, which, like Virginia Woolf’s incredible A Room of One’s Own is actually a series of lectures, Forster lays out his now infamous set of seven elements of the novel: Story, Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, Pattern, and Rhythm. This is also the work responsible for bringing to readers and writers the idea of “flat” versus “round” characters — yes, those terms, unlike many, are actually traceable to a source!
In his lectures, Forster discusses in length, and from many perspectives, the differences between readers and critics, including their different purposes, the approaches they do (and should?) take, and also their abilities. He says, for instance:
“The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events i the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency” (13-14).
This passage, I think, captures the essence of what Forster is trying to do, which is to separate the critic and the artist – to acknowledge the importance of a more artistic approach to reading, rather than a technical or historical one – to validate, in fact, the personal relationship a reader has with individual texts.
He does much more than this, of course. He is teaching writers how to write, without having them write a word. He gives numerous examples, from Dickens to Proust, from Woolf to DeFoe, to explain how and why certain writers do certain things. He examines beauty and fantasy – he explains, like none other have been able to, how Virginia Woolf is indeed a “fantasist” who writes with “deliberate bewilderment” (19). Why was the world of beauty closed to Dickens? Why is it so hard to define the term “story” and, upon defining it, what is its importance? Why do we tell stories and how are we more truthful, more connected, in fiction than in real life?
Some of Forster’s greatest insights, I think, come in the section on “People.” He says that “a character in a book is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows – many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden” (63). From here, he explains why this is and how it both strengthens a work and benefits the reader’s experience with it. “A novel is a work of art,” after all, “with its own laws, which are not those of daily life.” Whether we are reading a work of fantasy or realism, naturalism or postmodernism, what we should be looking for is the rules of the particular world at hand, and how are those rules governed, followed, or broken? For me, this approach has opened a number of doors – has made it much easier for me to accept the unacceptable (except, of course, in stories which are just downright bad).
In addition to specific evaluations like the one above, Forster also discusses elements such as allegory, mysticism, and symbolism, among others, with direct references to works and writers who employ them well. He even compares to writers or works who might both be mystics, for instance, and talks about how they do what they do – how it is different, perhaps, but equally effective. For a student of literature, the approach is, I think, wonderful and helpful.
Some of the references are outdated, and some of the language, too, but though these lectures happened decades ago, one can understand why they were the foundation for schools of thought which have cropped up and built upon them ever since. For any serious reader, Aspects of the Novel is a must.
3. How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton — 3.5 out of 4.0
I just love Terry Eagleton. He certainly will not appeal to everyone (in many of his works he is overtly political, which some readers will find put-offish, even if they agree with his politics, but especially if they don’t. I do happen to agree with most of his politics, and I think the guy is hilarious. And also a damn good writer – engaging, entertaining, and yet seriously knowledgeable.
This particular work, his most recent, is like a user-friendly introduction to literature and to many of his other works. He, like Forster, separates his text into themes: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value. Within each section, he elaborates on how to effectively read and understand certain aspects of these themes by giving great examples of writers doing it well.
Of particular interest, to me, were his explorations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (found in the section on Interpretation) and also his exploration of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (found in the section on Character). In both cases, his examination of the texts and how they work added much to what I had already taken away from them in my original readings (or to what I understood about the writer’s particular talents). In fact, it made me want to re-read both right away – which, sadly, I haven’t found the time to do!
Eagleton also gives some helpful, if not overly academic distinctions between “a book” and “a text,” for instance. Those who have traveled far in their literary education may find this book somewhat superficial; however, for those who are newly interested in literary studies or who are avid readers but do not necessarily know how to “talk the talk” – how to dissect a work of fiction, this could be a wonderful place to start. And, honestly, even for those with decades of experience, many of Eagleton’s examples are witty and transferable (I am using some in my own classes in the future, for instance) and his dissections of classic novels are always, always worth the ride.