Another Perilous Journey Into Classic Lit

As noted in this earlier blog post, I made a commitment in November 2016 to read more literary classics. Part of the reason was to immerse myself in something that would take my mind off of the news, which turned surreal in November of 2016 in a kind of comitragic way, and continues apace to this day. But I also thought it might be enlightening, kind of fun, and good for my own aspirations as a writer and editor.

I’ve stuck with that commitment since then, having read 12 books that show up on many lists of all-time greatest novels. That averages out to a little more than three a year. It might not sound like much, but keep in mind: Some of these books are absolute beasts that drag on for hundreds and hundreds of very dense and plodding pages. Plus, I like to sprinkle the classics in with my regular reading, which tends toward crime/mystery on the fiction side and sports/music/history on the non-fiction side. I probably read 25 to 30 books a year, so keeping the classics to less than a handful sounds about right.

Anyway, a dozen classics is enough to convince me of one thing, and that one thing is this:

I think I hate classic literature.

Yes, that’s probably true. I probably do hate it. I hate it the same way I hate yogurt or feta cheese. There’s nothing wrong with it, really. In fact, it’s probably pretty good for you. It makes you stronger, builds up your bones and intestinal system.

But it just doesn’t taste that great to me. I don’t have whatever genes or molecular structure you’re supposed to have to enjoy it. I open a new work of classic literature with an open mind. I’m like, “Oh boy! A new book! Classic literature! Moby Dick! Great Expectations! Let’s proceed full on, shan’t we?”

And then I’m 20 pages in and I’m thinking to myself: This doesn’t taste right. There’s something wrong here. The language is weird. I don’t get these characters. There’s no story to pique my interest. It goes from here to there with scattered thoughts and random musings and comically bad dialogue and characters who seem more like sketches of characters, and I get annoyed by it, just very, very annoyed.

Here’s the problem: Classic literature, I’ve decided, is all about theme and the human struggle. It’s about the Large Matters that Matter Largely. And that’s great, don’t get me wrong. That’s really, really great. Those things are important and necessary – if you happen to be a certain kind of reader.

But that kind of reader I am not. I’m fine with theme and the human struggle, as long as there’s a plot to tug me along, a story to keep me turning the pages

And frankly, a lot of classic literature just doesn’t give a shit about plot or story. Plot is an afterthought. It’s the weak, homely cousin standing in the corner while the strong, pretty cousins dance.

Well, fine. So be it. Classic lit is classic lit for a reason, and I don’t have to be smart enough to appreciate it. Seven thousand college lit professors can’t be wrong, while I’m right.

So it’s me. It’s my problem. It’s my fault. It’s my failing as a reader. I need to be a better reader. I need to suck it up and give more, try harder.

But I’m not sure I will. There’s a whole laundry list of classic novels I’ve been advised to read. Don Quixote. War and Peace. Jane Eyre. Madame Bovary. You get the idea.

You know what I’m reading now, though? A graphic novel called Fade Out, set in 1940s Hollywood, with lots of shady characters and dark streets and cocktail parties and a murder and a plot that’s interesting. There might be themes in it, I don’t know. There are certainly human struggles. But it’s also fun as hell to read.

On my bookshelf to be read next are a crime novel by Paul Cain and a couple of thrillers by Stephen King and Keigo Higashino. And I’m looking forward to them. And I know they’ll be entertaining.

As for classic lit: Right now, I’m thinking I gave it the old college try and I just don’t know if I have it in me anymore. But we’ll see. Maybe it’s just English language classic lit I have a problem with. The way it can drone on and on, so in love with the language itself that it gets distracted from the main point, if there is a main point.

I’ve lately taken a liking to Japanese books because they tend to be efficiently written, with no wasted words or lengthy expositions that veer the story off course. Maybe I’ll just read classic lit from other continents for a while. Asia. Africa. South America. Idaho.

We’ll see.

Anyway, following are the most recent classics I’ve read. I rated them on a scale of one to five stars, with one being positively dreadful and five being quite delightful.

Crime and Punishment  (**)

Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of my habits after reading a book is to look at reviews of it so I can discover things I might have missed, or that might be important. I followed the same pattern after finishing “Crime and Punishment.” Here’s what I learned from one review: As a young man, Dostoevsky spent four years in a western Siberia prison camp followed by six years as a conscripted soldier — because he belonged to a group of writers and intellectuals who discussed banned books that were critical of Tsarist Russian. Sounds pretty harsh, but I guess that’s just how things rolled in Tsarist Russia (and Stalinist Russia, and Soviet Russia, and Putinist Russia, and probably the next Russia).

The prison hitch probably explains why Dostoevsky decided to write this existentialist crime novel, and what he might have been aiming at by focusing as much on the psychology of crime and punishment as the actual acts. It doesn’t make the book any more inviting to me personally, but hey, it’s an interesting backstory.

This is the second Dostoevsky book I’ve read and the first I actually finished. I got about halfway through “The Idiot” many years ago before giving up. “Crime and Punishment” was easier to read, but only by a little. It at least had some semblance of a plot I could vaguely recognize.

But I still had the same problems with “Crime and Punishment” that I have with so many other pre-20th Century literary works. The writing doesn’t seem that great, the story zigs and zags with no sense of order or logic, the dialogue is often just plain silly, and too many of the characters don’t seem real.

The one conclusion I’ve come to about many of these classic 19th Century novels is that they’re not so much concerned with telling a story as advancing a philosophy or moral worldview. I don’t see a lot of actual “story” in many of them, or at least a story that follows a familiar plotline. That’s a problem for me, because I need a good story to pull me along — especially when there aren’t a lot of laughs, memorable characters or zingy dialogue to keep me engaged. Here’s the short plot recap of “Crime and Punishment:”

An impoverished former law student named Raskolnikov commits a couple of brutal murders so he can steal goods and exchange them for money. Only he doesn’t keep the goods, for whatever reason, so he remains impoverished. Also, Raskolnikov meets a guy in a tavern whose daughter has turned to prostitution to help support her family. Also, Raskolnikov learns that his sister might get married to an opportunistic asshole. Also, Raskolnikov befriends someone who falls in love with his sister, only this guy’s a decent sort. Also, a police detective named Petrovich suspects Raskolnikov of committing the murders and sort of snoops around, which gets on Raskolnikov’s nerves. And there’s the prostitute mentioned earlier, who Raskolnikov has taken a shine to. Also, there’s a guy who lives next door who overhears Raskolnikov confessing his murders to the prostitute, and this guy wants to exchange his silence for Raskolnikov’s sister.

Also….oh, forget it. I got lost somewhere around the 200th page and just kept lurching forward the next 300-plus pages, hoping for some kind of insight or illumination that never came.

It certainly didn’t help that every character seemed to have three or four different names. Raskolnikov’s full name was Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Sometimes he was referred to as Raskolnikov. Sometimes as Rodion Raskolnikov. Sometimes as Rodya. Sometimes as Rodion. Sometimes as Rodka. Sometimes as Romanovich. I guess that’s how it works in Russian culture, which is fine. But it doesn’t make reading an already difficult novel any easier. You literally needed a scorecard just to keep up with who was saying what. The copy I bought had a list of all the characters and their various names in the back.

Raskolnikov never really shows much remorse for killing two largely innocent women — one was a kind of cruel and greedy pawnbroker, the other her abused and gentle sister — other than being annoyed that he might get caught. He largely operates under the philosophy that if you’re important enough, you have the right to do anything you please. He was one of the least likeable protagonists I’ve ever come across, and I spent most of the novel waiting (praying) for him to get caught. You can read it yourself if you want to know what happens.

If there is a moral philosophy behind “Crime and Punishment,” it’s no easier to find than the central plot.

Meanwhile, the writing shifts between crisp, sloppy, witty, dumb, engaging and boring. Some of it was so bad that it bordered on comical. Consider this brief passage:

“But, Dunechka, only think of our situation now! What if Peter Petrovich withdraws?” incautiously said poor Pulhkeria Alexandrovna.

There are so many things wrong with these words that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s just terrible on so many levels. You could never get away with writing like that nowadays. If I tried submitting a novel in 2020 with dialogue that contained phrases like “only think,” or adverb/verb conjunctions like “incautiously said,” I’d be sent back to freshman creative writing class. In fact, too much of the novel reads like a freshman creative writing project, with its breathless dialogue and sudden, incomprehensible switching of thoughts, ideas and POV. Other times it reads like a Facebook post, with its steady parade of explanation points! after every other! line!!!!! The only thing missing are the ALL CAPS!!!! and the emojis!! 😊😊😊!!!!!!

I don’t know how much of this should be blamed on the translator, who I assume is/was a Brit since I bought the book in London. I would love to see how “Crime and Punishment” reads in its native Russian, but alas, me speaky no Russian.

There were a few sections in “Crime and Punishment” that did pull me in a little. These usually occurred when Dostoevsky stepped away from the action and planted himself inside the head of one of his characters. The writing and focus tend to tighten up considerably in these moments. I also liked the conversations between Raskolnikov and Petrovich, the detective, because they held a little of the criminal-cop tension I enjoy in any crime story.

So, I give “Crime and Punishment” 2 stars, which makes it about average for the time period. Out of all the 19th Century novels I’ve read — and there have been a lot, thanks to my former life as a college English major — I can think of only four I really enjoyed on both an intellectual and entertainment level: “Pride and Prejudice,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Huck Finn” and “Heart of Darkness.”

Sadly, I’m beginning to think those might be the only four that ever make the list. But I’ll keep pressing forward, anyway.

Jazz (***)

Toni Morrison

I assumed jazz music would be a central theme in this novel, based on the title and the fact that much of it is set in Harlem in the 1920s – the exact place and time that jazz became a worldwide cultural phenomenon. But the title really alludes to Morrison’s writing style more than the music itself. The story involves a revolving cast of narrators acting as soloists. There’s an almost bebop use of words and phrases, along with sudden, improvisational shifts in pace and tone. You’ll find occasional mentions of music playing in the streets, or on the rooftops or behind nightclub doors, but it’s more of a shadow than anything else.

This was my first foray into Toni Morrison’s work. The one thing I came away thinking is that she had some serious writing chops. She knew how to string words and sentences together in an expert fashion, none more so than when she digs deep inside the heads of her characters and lets their thoughts spill out. This is a book heavily focused on themes – love, regret, deception, death, race, God, geography – and Morrison brings depth to them all. She also does a beautiful job of describing New York City during the Jazz Age, making it a central character in the book, and maybe the most interesting one.

But, the story itself was problematic for me. It just wasn’t compelling enough to maintain my interest. Somebody has died very early in the book, and it doesn’t take long to learn what happened. I guess we’re supposed to be intrigued as to why. Maybe I was intrigued for the first third of the book. But after that the story kept wandering off between time periods and characters, and eventually I just got to that stage in a book where you keep grinding forward even though you’d be just as happy to close up shop right then and there and move on to something else.

There’s no denying the power and grace of Toni Morrison’s writing, and you can spend a pretty good afternoon just immersing yourself in the words. But for the marathon of making your way through a full novel, I just wish it had a stronger hook.

To the Lighthouse (**)

Virginia Woolf

I think I might have read Virginia Wolff before, perhaps many years ago when I was a student, perhaps in Miss Tyson’s 9th Grade English Literature class – Miss Tyson, so impassioned she was about writing! Who adored Shakespeare; who had us read “QB VII;” a fine teacher, that one, top of the lot she was, dear old Miss Tyson (not old, really, but just old to us) – or maybe it was as an English major in college, when I was an aspiring journalist, a writer in training, when I wrote for the student newspaper, when I bandied about too full of myself, when the lads and I would stumble down the side of the mountain filled with strong drink, eyes bloodshot, fit and confident, lost and rudderless, forever young as we aged, aged, aged our way into adulthood.

And what of the lads (Iodine, Freak, Por-Tay, Mass, names I can no longer remember, one we called Jim Perry), what became of them? The mountains were always shadowing us, looming over us throughout those years, too many years, not enough years. I read so many books in college (did any of the lads die?). I was assigned so many books in college. I read Conrad and Updike, Austen and Wilder, “Humphrey Clinker” and “The Iceman Cometh,” I read “The Crying of Lot 49,” and Faulkner and the Brontes and Camus and Evelyn Waugh and Tennessee Williams and Joan Didion and Dickens. The mountains stood high above. The lads and I….

What you just read is what my head felt like reading “To the Lighthouse.” The book is all disconnected thoughts and wordy mishmash and meandering stream of consciousness. I’m no Virginia Wolff (or Tom Wolfe, or Howlin’ Wolf)  so I can’t recreate her writing. Her writing is exquisite, masterful, full of depth and meaning. She was a genius with words and language, truly one of the finest around, I’m sure of it, because that’s what everyone says so who am I to disagree, but all the same, all the same, all the same….

Boring as f*** all. It is. I’m sorry, it just is.

This is not a long book. It checks in at less than 200 pages. But it took me about three centuries to get through it. The pages were made of heavy stone, each weighing a ton, all but impossible to turn. The text is so dense I felt like I might get buried alive in it. The action – there is no action. The plot – there is no plot. The story – well, here’s the breakdown.

  • Part 1: People talk about going to the lighthouse the next day. Probably won’t happen. The weather, you see. We enter their minds and thoughts. They think this, that and the other thing. One guy, Mr. Ramsey, seems a bit of a prick. His long-suffering wife has pretty conflicting ideas about pretty much everything. One character is a painter (I think). There’s a son in there somewhere, and a daughter, and another son. There’s hardly any dialogue.
  • Part 2: Years later. Some of the characters are dead now. Some have aged. The lighthouse is still there. There’s still hardly any dialogue. Some of the passages are interesting. I begin to get drawn in a little. I have hope. But it disappears as we proceed to….
  • Part 3: Something about taking a boat to the lighthouse. There’s a salty old sailor who knows the tides well. There’s still hardly any dialogue.

Ok, this is not a plot-driven book. It is a theme-driven book. The themes have to do with aging, death, regret, memory, relationships, etc. It’s the kind of book that only a certain type of mind can appreciate, and I am not that certain kind of mind. I simply cannot process these kinds of literary dreamscapes. I’ve tried, Lord knows I’ve tried. I plug along, thinking, hoping, that these books will eventually light something inside me. But they don’t. I need a story. I need dialogue. I need mood, attitude, characters who do things and go places.

The truth is, I grew to hate seeing this book lying around, waiting to be read every day. I give it 2 stars because the words on the page sounded good if you just read them aloud and didn’t try to process anything. The writing is first rate. There’s just not enough of it that actually goes anywhere.

Margaret Atwood wrote an essay for the Guardian about “To the Lighthouse.” In it, she said she first read it at 19 and it didn’t do anything for her. But when she reread it a second time, decades later, it was a revelation.

“Some books have to wait until you’re ready for them,” Atwood wrote.

That’s probably true. But I ain’t got time to wait.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  (***)

John LeCarre

This book falls firmly under the umbrella of genre fiction, but it still gets listed on those periodic rundowns of “Greatest Novels of All Time.” It ranked No. 78  on The Guardian’s list, just ahead of “Song of Solomon.” So we can call it Classic Lit, even though it’s a spy novel.

I’m still not sure what happened in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” even though I read it cover to cover, every word. There’s just a lot going on and somewhere along the way I got lost in the plot and never really recovered. Maybe it’s because I read fiction in the late afternoon, when the work and chores are done, and I’m drowsy, and I usually have a short nap afterward. Maybe it’s because British writing often leaves me straining to find the cognizant part of my brain. More on that later

I did ingest enough to know the book is set during the height of the Cold War (mid-1970s). There are a lot of British spies and some Russian spies and some Czechoslovakian characters and a Hungarian one (I think), and one of the British spies turned mole and is secretly working with the Russians. Some people die. One guy is called Control. The mole hates America. The main character, George Smiley, comes of out semi-retirement to interview people and weed through the evidence and find the mole. No more about that. No spoiler alert.

The first part of the novel seemed to drag and drag and drag, at least to me. It finally grabbed my interest around the middle, especially during some of the dialogue scenes, but by then the storyline was hopelessly lost to me. John LeCarre is a very good writer, so there’s some very good writing. I’ve read a couple of his other books and enjoyed them.

This one? Not as much. There’s nothing really wrong with it, and I’m sure it’s earned its place in the literary canon. But there’s just something about British spy novels and British writing in general that leaves me kind of exasperated. So much of it strains to be literary, as if every line has to be precise, lyrical, perfect. Every now and then you wish they’d toss in something pedestrian just for the fun of it. I’m showing my native bias here, but I’ll take terse, hard-boiled American crime fiction over Brit spy fiction any day of the week. Not saying I’m right, and I’m guessing most literary experts would give me a stern talking to.

But you are what you is.

A Rage in Harlem (*****)

Chester Himes

Well, this book doesn’t make any lists of literary classics, but I feel it deserves special mention in this post because it’s a classic example of a certain genre and time period — in this case, mid-20th Century hardboiled American detective fiction, with a touch of noir. And because it’s one of the best examples of this genre, it’s now one of my favorite books.

The title is misleading. There’s not much rage in “A Rage in Harlem,” and my understanding is that Himes originally titled it “The Five-Cornered Square.” It was originally published in France as “La Reine des pommes” (The Queen of Fools”), was renamed  “For Love of Imabelle” by its first U.S. publisher, and then finally changed to “A Rage in Harlem” because that sounded more menacing and marketable.

Anyway, it’s the first installment in Himes’ “Harlem Cycle Series” of nine books set during the 1950s and ‘60s. The books feature a pair of African American detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who do not dick around when it comes to solving crimes and tracking down perps.

The plot of “A Rage in Harlem” centers on a man named Jackson, an undertaker’s assistant who gets conned out of $1,500 by a pair of hustlers, one of whom was his girlfriend Imabelle, only he doesn’t know she’s involved. Jackson goes about trying to track down the hustler and his money and ends up crossing paths with even more hustlers, a trio of hardass criminals who are wanted down South, and the aforementioned Coffin Ed and Grave Digger.

The story is interesting and keeps you turning the pages, but the real allure is Himes himself, whose has pretty much every tool in the writer’s toolbox. The book is rich in atmosphere, the dialogue is spot on and often hilarious, the characters seem to jump right off the page, and the tension can hypnotize you.

Himes, like Dostoevsky, served a stretch in prison, only he was in for armed robbery rather than reading and discussing banned books. He took up writing in prison and published his first novel, “If He Hollers Let Him Go,” in 1945 at the age of 36. A native of Missouri who also spent time in Arkansas, Ohio and Los Angeles, Himes never actually lived in Harlem. He moved to France during the 1950s and eventually settled in Spain, where he died in 1984.

The fact that he lived in Europe during his most prolific years as a writer partly explains why Himes isn’t mentioned more often alongside other American crime masters of the era, like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald, Mickey Spillane and Ed McBain. Himes’ skin color probably played a part as well. That’s a shame, because he’s every bit their equal and, for my money, surpasses just about everyone with the possible exceptions of Chandler and Thompson.

Buy this book.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this! This is definitely food for thought. I agree with you about how some of the classics can be too dry– just because they stood the test of time doesn’t mean that I’ll enjoy them. But I do have a few that I still like reading, mostly the ones that I’ve been reading since I was a kid. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a fan of Louisa May Alcott. Her books are a little easier to read than some of the other classics. Also, A Christmas Carol by Dickens is one of my favorites! I’m still trying to get through Les Mis so we’ll see how that goes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love A Christmas Carol as well, and my wife tells me good things about Little Women, though I’ve never read it. One day maybe I’ll tackle Les Miz too. Happy reading!

    Like

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