More of an Update but some stuff on Dumas and Rohmer
No, I haven't given up the blog. I am reading O'Hara's BUTTERFIELD 8, in fact, as we speak, and even though I'm only in the opening pages of it I'm almost ready to say it might be his best novel.
It has been on something of a pause because all of a sudden I had a couple really really crappy things happen in my personal life, which is neither here nor there for the purpose of this blog, except to say that it's hard to get too interested in John O'Hara's gloomy visions of life (basically, we all suck and everything fails) when, well, you're dealing with your own gloomy reality of life. Ultimately my interest in all art, all culture, is in its immersive escapism – its potential to free me from the surly bonds of this world. That's what I want out of a book. That's why I like genre fiction, that's why I have a weakness for populist fiction, that's why I prefer the movies over the theatah, that's why I'm hard on the self-consciously literary or bohemian. It's not the only why, but it's a why. I'm looking for art to take me out of myself; sure, John O'Hara can do it, but when you're feeling down O'Hara ain't the best guy to be reading.
I really do wish that I could post more, but unlike the various blogs I do read, the topic does not lend itself to quickness. I have thought about opening it up to others but decided against it because this blog is really all about me, yo. I wouldn’t be happy unless whoever posted said something I entirely agreed with, and if they did, well, why am I not posting it myself?
Me, trapped in a hallway of mirrors, endlessly fascinated by my own gaze.
What I have been reading is CHICOT THE JESTER and a lot of Sax Rohmer.
I have come to the conclusion that CHICOT is a minor Dumas classic, and is surely deserving to be back in print. Much more so than the dreary THE WOMEN'S WAR or, for that matter, the rather dreary LA REINE MARGOT. This is going to sound thuddingly obvious, but it's worth repeating for Dumas because a lot of people don't get it – Dumas's best books are the Musketeer saga and COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO because that's where good characters meet up with a sturdy story structure. For all of Dumas's popular success, he was, curiously, something of an indifferent storyteller, and for every COUNT there's stuff like THE WOMEN'S WAR, the plot of which I couldn't tell you if my life depended on it, or LA REINE MARGOT/QUEEN MARGOT, which kind of ambles along from sequence to sequence, until Dumas just tires of the whole thing and kills off his main characters and bawls about it in a Romantic flurry.
It's rare, but it happens in Dumas, that you get a good story with dull characters. GEORGES, I'd argue, is that – a potentially fascinating story of slave revolts, and race, and colonization, all made more interesting by Dumas's own racial background. Unfortunately the hero's an uncharismatic bore and he almost closes the door to you getting involved in the story. I'd still include it in the recommended camp, but GEORGES is really for hardcore Dumas fans, and is more interesting than good.
It's rare, but again it happens in Dumas, that you get a dull story with a great character. CHICOT is that, and I think CHICOT wears a lot better than GEORGES. What's interesting is that CHICOT isn't even really the protagonist of the story – that honor goes to Bussy d'Amboise, a typical noble Dumas hero/soon to be a victim character. I don't know how it's going to end but I already know how it's gonna end – Bussy's gonna get screwed, is how.
Chicot, though, takes over every scene he's in. Illustrating that useful cliché that verily, there is nothing new under the sun, he is a modern anti-establishment hero long before that concept was even conceived of, goofing on the King and his court even as he really, secretly, protects him. And it's shown that it's his very anti-establishment tendencies that make him the King's best protector, as he can see things and understand things that the rest of the court (and the King himself) are blind to.
It's funny – one of the most appealing things about Dumas is that reading him is like reading storytelling talent raw, just whiskey right out of the cask and poured onto the page. You can actually see him lose interest in Bussy and gain interest in Chicot as the character develops. It's a fascinating thing. It can’t be said to exactly make for a great book, no book that works against itself in this way can ever be said to be “great”, but it is quite fun.
As for Sax Rohmer, I remember posting earlier here that I wasn’t sure where all that racist stuff with Rohmer came from. Well…forget all that. I did read some earlier Fu Manchu stuff recently, particularly THE INSIDUOUS FU MANCHU and THE RETURN OF FU MANCHU and THE TRAIL OF FU MANCHU and yeah, there’s a lot of stuff there about evil yellow perils. Even – I think this is in INSIDUOUS – a whole bit about “how to you properly evaluate a race of people who sacrifice their female children”, etc.
But the books really are great, especially if you have any feeling at all for popular conventions of the time. I mean, beats there a heart so cold that it doesn’t flurry when they hear lines like this? “Oh my God! Not the Zayat Kiss!” I mean there’s a whole potpourri of secret dens, evil insects, I think in one book killer mushrooms, hypnosis, zombification, mad plans to take over the world with plagues, etc. The Fu Manchu books, particularly the early ones, have that kind of almost oriental baroqueness, the kind of preciousness where Asian assassins can truly be at large in the Devonshire countryside, and good upstanding British men can be swept away by the passion of mysteriously sultry Asian women, and secret dens of unspeakable evil are hanging out on the docks.
I love that sense, the sense that there’s a secret, more fascinating reality just beyond what you can see, and that if you venture carefully enough, you may in fact find it. I think it’s that, coupled with Rohmer’s often mad sense of invention, which has kept him so readable and so memorable for so long. Rohmer does have problems over longer narratives – his early books are fixit novels from shorter pieces and rather the better for it, as their episodic nature enhances Rohmer’s natural talents for the arresting image or idea. The books generally get duller as they go on, more plodding in their craftsmanship, if that makes sense. Rohmer just didn’t think like a novelist. A lot of very good writers don’t.
But I am now interested in tracking down more non-Fu Manchu books from him. Stay tuned for John O’Hara and then Samuel Shellabarger, I think.