More Good Books. . .

Prévost, Antoine-François (Abbé Prévost). Manon Lescaut.

Manon Lescaut is one of those writings which raises the questions of what a novel is, and what an artwork is. Presumably, one of the components of an artwork is the relationship of the whole and its parts. If we take a Raphael madonna and cut away everything but one of the ornamental angels, do we have a Raphael or do we have a piece of modern kitsch which we have created ourselves?

Abbé Prévost wrote Manon Lescaut as a chapter in the almost forgotten Mémoires d'un Homme de qualité. We can publish it separately as a great novel, and we do so all the time, but who wrote that novel: Abbé Prévost, recent custom, or the current reader?

Whatever it is and whoever wrote it, Manon Lescaut has a powerful effect. So what do we care about its history? Well, if we want to know how it produces its effect, and in order to feel that effect most fully, we'd best start by finding out who the book is about. It's called Manon Lescaut, so the main character must be Manon herself, right? Well, whatever logic that might have had if Prévost had written Manon Lescaut in the form we're used to reading it, we're going to have to face up to the fact that the name he gave to his chapter was "The Story of the Chevalier des Grieux and Manon Lescaut". And in fact, the book is not about Manon, who is a rather perfunctory figure, but about the Chevalier des Grieux and his irrational and overwhelming feeling for Manon. (Hmmm. One of those timelines which the French love to print with novels says that at one point Abbé Prévost, in a situation not unlike those of the character he calls the "Abbé des Grieux", had to make a quick getaway from the house of his employer because of his involvement with his employer's daughter. I wonder.) Maybe that's the secret of the book: we undergo our catharsis as we relive our involuntary fascination with The Woman, this time as the Chevalier des Grieux. Or maybe it's just that our involuntary fascination with The Woman is such an important part of life.

George Steiner asks about the reason for our cultural obsession with Carmen. As I said over there, I'm not sure that his question is really much of a question, or that his answer is an answer. But is our interest really in Carmen at all? Or is the story about Don Jose? You know my answer. Read the story again.

A certain historian points out that the one bit of Valois history which everyone remembers is that Henri II was killed by a splinter which entered his eye during a joust, and that the reason we all remember it has nothing to do with traditional historiography, but with the opening of The Princess of Cleves. Well, there's another bit of Valois history we all remember, whether it happened or not: "Although the passion [of Henri II] for Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had began twenty years earlier, it was none the less violent for that." Do I have to say it again?

I wonder if these famous stories of men's possession by women have the same effect on women readers that they have on men.


Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de. The Persian Letters.

People like to use Montaigne as the example of the new, modern, relaxed French humanism of the Renaissance. If it were easy to extract a coherent philosophy from Montaigne at all, the attitude might be justified. As it is, it is probably easier to take whatever you have heard about Montaigne and apply it to Montesquieu.

The Persian Letters is a coherent statement of philosophy on many issues, mainly but not exclusively social. As with Montaigne, if we in the Twenty-First Century were to try to relate to Montesquieu's claims as new inventions, we would be forced to say: 'Who doesn't believe in that these days?'. However, the Persian Letters is at least as much a book of ethics as of anything else, and just as with many books of ethics, one could say of it that "it was not written to teach them what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and completely accept". More than anything else, it reminds us of how to accept other cultures and other beliefs happily and with humor. (No, I am not particularly hinting at Fundamentalist extremists. My remark is aimed at least as much at the agents of the peer review inquisition.)

Firmly in what later became the French tradition, the Persian Letters is also a novel, both in form and in fact. The form is well suited to a philosophical declaration of this sort. As to the novel as entertainment and as art, the Persian Letters has some problems, but taken as a whole is pretty good.


Claudel, Paul. Poetic Art.

Claudel is famous as a writer of art-literature. I've read one of his works in that world. It left me bewildered, perhaps because my cultural backgrounds are too different from his. I have no way of idealizing suffering.

On the other hand, I found this collection of his critical essays startling. The biggest bombshell is his theory of the evolution and nature of poetry as the natural rhythm of speech, when uncontaminated by logic, which developed with and for writing. I'm not sure how much this helps us to understand most traditional poetry, but it gives us a fulcrum from which to understand such odds and ends as automatic poetry, prose poetry, and free verse. Strangely, this same theory also helps to makes sense of such ancient tomatoes as the excellence of Virgil.

A theory is often judged by how completely it helps to explain what we want to explain, but of course, if we have a choice, we would also like it to have some predictive value. It's therefore good when Claudel's theory of the origin of poetry spawns a theory of poetic creation which produces one odd but almost testable result. Claudel suggests that while Baudelaire's natural poetry was everything we always thought that it was, Baudelaire's art wasn't quite up to it. Which is why his poems start out the way they do, or hit the high points which they hit, and afterwards fizzle into competence. Just pay attention to which Baudelaire you can recite by heart: isolated bits at the beginning of a poem or stanza.

Claudel's theory of the changing function of the book is also a surprise. What would he say about the books of the early Twenty-First Century? Are current changes in publishing patterns the crowning symbol of the dumbing down of America?

Claudel's attack on Naturalism is also a relief. Even one who has been granted the vision of Degas' pasty middle aged women in their tin bathtubs must ask if there was ever a future for this school, or a present, or if perhaps it wasn't one of those stages which is significant in the history of literature, but which has less significance as literature in itself. Perhaps Renoir was right, and Madame Bovary was just a book about "an idiot whose wife doesn't know what she wants".

But Claudel was not an Artist; Claudel was a poet, and these last two questions blend into the question of whether poetry has a place in the post-religious, post-magical, post-numinous technical world of achievable goals. I have seen many authors who claim that it doesn't, although I can't remember offhand who they were.


Jones, Guy Pearce and Constance Bridges. Peabody's Mermaid.

"Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." Doctor Johnson may have been right about Tristram Shandy (Does required reading count? Or reading for the sake of a degree?), but many of us would prefer to call Sterne's book not "odd", but original. I'm not sure that I would want to compare Peabody's Mermaid with the more famous novel, but it also seems to have fallen into an undeserved oblivion, also presumably because it is difficult to classify, and thus difficult to store. It is truly an adult fantasy, neither a coy imitation of children's fantasies nor an "adult" fantasy, i. e., one written for particularly immature twelve-year-olds. It is a novel whose plot revolves around one of our traditional imaginary creatures, written for adults. It is also a book whose cattish social criticism is expressed in a succession of incident and detail, without even a glimpse of implied superiority. Neither we nor the authors are better than the characters in the book, we merely live our lives with different details. And it a novel belonging to that long but dead tradition which allowed a work to be both entertainment and serious literature, before culture was reserved for the cultured, in the appropriate setting. And how many novels, especially successful novels of marriage, were written by a husband-and-wife team?
On your way out of the used book store, never forget to check the piles of crumbling old pocket books being sold by the bagful.

Pascal, Blaise. The Provincial Letters.

In their first general history of philosophy, Solomon and Higgins complain that Pascal is hardly ever discussed seriously. In fact, though constantly quoted (by Frenchmen, and humorously by others), he is never read. Which is only to be expected, since his most famous book is in effect a notebook, as badly organized as every other notebook, and therefore unreadable.

If you really want to get to know Pascal, The Provincial Letters is a much better place to start. Despite its serial history, the book is a well organized exposition of one of Pascal's passions. Indeed, even if the book had no other virtues, the opportunity to see Pascal in a passion would make it worth reading. (A passion, or hysteria?) But in fact, The Provincial Letters are worth reading for many reasons. They are a good introduction to the controversy over Jansenism, which is itself important background for an interesting period and for the lives of some interesting people. The book also works as an introduction to the Roman Catholic concepts of will, grace, and heresy without the lies-for-the-sake-of-the-truth which the modern schoolbook discussions of the latter bring to the discussion. (One of the innumerable reasons to get students used to using primary sources at an early age.) In fact, for people who know how to read between the lines, it's useful as an objective introduction to the subject of Catholic casuistry itself.

Even the chance to see a great philosopher and theologian blinded by his own beliefs is an opportunity: In the heat of his own Catholicism, Pascal doesn't seem to have been able to comprehend the concept of a religious subsystem based on law.

The famous remark on the long letter is indeed here, and in context it is not intended to be facetious or even clever.


Kundera, Milan. The Art of the Novel.

Given the author and the subject of this Hydra-headed collection of essays, one could assume that it would be required reading for anyone interested in the history or the theory of the novel. What is surprising is the beauty of the work, and the importance of the discoveries.

The bombshell in the first essay is the absolute dependence of the novel form on modern European culture, something which many modern readers notice but few can explain. (My apologies to the assistant professors and blurb-writers for Penguin who like to talk about Hellenistic proto-novels and medieval Chinese novels; they're either missing the point or accidentally proving it.) Although Kundera wastes his opportunity of explaining what in the novel's structure makes it a novel, he does have quite a bit to say about its essence.

The bombshell in the fourth essay is the meandering around the definition of the novel. Kundera's own works are enough of a problem, as he and the interviewer both realize, and they do both mount the Decameron on the tips of their swords, but Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year is allowed to continue hiding in the background.

The sixth essay is a philosophical dictionary in which modernity and its downfall again play an important part, and especially the connection between modern culture and the concept of privacy. The disappearance of the Central European is a major motif both here and in the other essays. The more experienced readers of Kundera will probably understand, but I don't know how many other Americans will. The entry on "Beauty (and awareness)" provides yet another weld in the link between great art and morality: "[A]ll of those aspects of existence which the novel discovers, it discovers sub specie pulchritudinis.... Beauty in the arts: a light suddenly lit over that which has never been said."


Medawar, Peter. Pluto's Republic: incorporating the Art of the Soluble and Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought.

This is a collection of essays about the scientific method, various pseudo-scientific methods, and other odds and ends. Medawar seems to have been one of the few practicing technician-scientists in the last few years who also wrote systematically about what has sadly come to be called "methodology". He is an unrepentant and clear-headed Popperian; unlike some of the professional philosophers (try Papineau in Grayling), he does not mistake Popper's intention. Since Popper is not trying to logically justify the 'hypothetico-deductive scheme', but merely describing how science is done, the attacks on him from the infinite-regress camp are misplaced.
The biographical articles here are mostly good entertainment, though they all have morals, and they will help the historian of science put things in perspective.
Medawar was well educated and very well read. It is unfortunate that he only seems to have contacted mysticism of the fuzzy-headed variety; his attacks on romanticism may be a little bit one-sided. The attacks on Nietzsche and the 20th-century obscurantists, on the other hand, are very pertinent.

Soyinka, Wole. Ake: The Years of Childhood. Vintage, 1989.

This is a memoir of the author's childhood in the partly Christianized tribal society of small-town Nigeria. For the 'Westerner', it is a much better introduction to sub-Saharan Africa and to the mind of the animist than almost any work on anthropology or the history of religion. It also has the immediacy of the world seen through the eyes of a child, a world much easier to parody than to recreate.
There's some nostalgia here, but it's not unbearable. The anti-colonialism is neither crudely political nor overpowering. The structure of the book is different from any I have seen before, but it is hard to tell where this is Soyinka and where this is tribal Africa.


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