PAW 22 – Zuleika Dobson (895) by Max Beerbohm

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm; Penguin Paperback 895; 1950 edition

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm; Penguin Paperback 895; 1950 edition

Zuleika Dobson is a book that caught me slightly wrong-footed, and I’m not certain that I ever really recovered through my reading of it. I’m not sure if I could classify this book as ‘magical realism’ since I’ve always avoided that genre, which is not really a genre, but is really just a method of writing which pretends to be imaginative but is only just pretentious and needlessly abstruse. It is written for, and presumably by, people who turn their noses up at SF and Fantasy but still find their souls lacking of it. It is the small beer, the alco-pop of genre fiction.

If I haven’t lost you with that last paragraph, I will say that Zuleika Dobson is undoubtedly clever and well written. But still, that cleverness smacks of pretension and it may just be that I don’t know enough about, or sufficiently appreciate, Classic Greek drama, that I could only pick up small clues and inferences to ancient tragedy that would have made more sense of the whole matter. As it was, the plot, characterizations, and resolution were all lost on me. The only thing that wasn’t lost on me were the descriptions and impressionism of Oxford, which was comfortingly faithful even through the lens of one hundred years.

The plot deals with the beautiful and much-famed Zuleika Dobson arriving at Oxford to visit her rather estranged uncle. She lived as an orphan and found world fame through being a stage magician, which is odd because Beerbohm often stresses that she is not more beautiful than any other character, her act is practically infantile and was stolen from someone who bought it as a kit. And yet all the youths of Oxford are willing to die for her. The other main character, the Duke of Dorset, has more to recommend him as a person, but he allows himself to be wholly commanded by the fates, or non-specific Grecian gods, or Beerbohm himself, and so has very little will or agency in the plot.

There is also a strong misogyny running through the book. The Duke is strong, faithful, stoic, passionate, and is the pattern of manhood which all others judge themselves against. Zuleika is mercurial, mischievous, fickle, proud, and demanding of sacrifice and attention.

Overall impression: amusing in parts, ultimately disappointing.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Comments Off on PAW 22 – Zuleika Dobson (895) by Max Beerbohm

PAW 21 – The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1909) by Muriel Spark

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 1909; 1963 edition, illustration by Terrence Greer

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 1909; 1963 edition, illustration by Terrence Greer

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is the third Muriel Spark book that I’ve read in this review series. It’s the only one I was aware of before this list and it’s actually the one I enjoyed the least, although I did admire it.

It mostly follows one character, Dougal Douglas (AKA Douglas Dougal), but it is much less cohesive than many of her other books (at least the ones I’ve read). The central premise is that a successful manufacturer wishes to engage a creative spirit as a consultant to help energize and enliven his work staff who he fears are becoming too dehumanized.

Of course, this is Muriel Spark, so there is a necessary subversion of the central premise, and that is that the creative consultant, Dougal, is malicious, possibly insane, and self-avowedly evil. He brings chaos with him, but it is destructive chaos and not creative chaos. Where another author might show how such an artistic spirit enlivens those around him, bringing joy and self-realization through his impishness, Spark’s tale is much more cautionary than prescriptive. Just because something challenges you and pushes you out of your comfort zone– that doesn’t mean that it’s good and healthy for you. Dougal Douglas is shown to take advantage of his position, slows productivity in the factory, and moonlights for another company, all under the banner of liberalism.

As such, it’s hard to tell exactly where Spark’s sympathies lie, or what he opinion might be. But of course Spark is far too sophisticated an author to betray this, which is not intended as a slight. As is typical with her, and Grahame Greene (who I keep drawing comparisons with–favorably, I hope), the method is simply just to present human nature, in its ugliness and brokenness and beauty, and then let the reader draw inferences and conclusions for themselves.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Comments Off on PAW 21 – The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1909) by Muriel Spark

PAW 20 – The Man Who Was Thursday (95) by G K Chesterton

The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 95; 1954 edition

The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 95; 1954 edition

The Man Who Was Thursday is a metaphysical mystery/thriller. There aren’t many of this ilk written anymore. It’s one of Chesterton’s most accessible novels, and it’s been great to see that it’s achieved a sort of resurgence in recent years — there are many modern editions of it currently in print. The late, great Terry Pratchett sings its praises frequently, and Neil Gaiman is an avowed fan of GKC.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a sort of long parable, although Chesterton describes it as “a nightmare”. In subject matter it’s closer to the fiction works of Charles Williams than anything else, but it is cast in a spy-thriller format, making it compulsively readable. The main character, Gabriel Syme, begins in a setting that Ian Fleming might conceive, but quickly gets drawn in to a looking-glass world of inverted beliefs and alliances.

As with my other favourite Chesterton novel, The Ball and the Cross, it is a mistake to assume (as Adam Gopernik did in a New Yorker review of Chesterton) that Syme, as the main character, is always and truly in the right as he fights a world of wrong. What I find most delightful about this story is the very subtle and gradual changes that his character makes after each and every triumph, so that at the end of the book he is a very different character, with a very different outlook, and you haven’t been aware that he has gone through any change at all–but he has, and so have we.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a book I keep reading by accident. Since 2001 I have done so six times. I’ll start by looking back through it for a favourite line, then I’ll read a few more pages, and then finish the chapter, and then go back to the begin and start in earnest. It’s one of the most perfect novels I’ve read, and it won’t be many years before I’ve read it another half dozen times.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Books, Penguin a Week, Reviews | Comments Off on PAW 20 – The Man Who Was Thursday (95) by G K Chesterton

PAW 19 – Pygmalion (300) by Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw; Penguin Paperback 300; 1946 edition

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw; Penguin Paperback 300; 1946 edition

I knew that Pygmalion was adapted into the movie/musical My Fair Lady, but I was unaware that the characters and dialogue were all from Bernard Shaw, it was only the music and dance numbers that were added. And that was a thrill and a disappointment because although apart from the catchy (infective, really) tunes and general jolliness, it is a fundamentally misogynistic story.

First, a word needs to be said about the actual Penguin Paperback edition of the play, which, however you feel about the story itself, is certainly a joy to experience. It is a slim volume, but it has a preface and a lengthy epilogue by the author, as well as over 100 illustrations of the story, peppered on just about every page. It also contains the scenes that Bernard Shaw himself wrote for the original movie that was first adapted from his play. It was intended as a very special edition in celebration of Penguin’s Tri-Centenery of publications.

The title references the Ancient Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor whose skill is so great that he falls in love with a sculpture that he creates. Apart from the Bernard Shaw play, which not only spawned My Fair Lady, but also Educating Rita, She’s All That, and others, the Pygmalion story itself has inspired movies like Mannequin and Lars And The Real Woman. It is a fundamentally perverse story — a cautionary tale, more than anything. However, translated by Bernard Shaw we have a story in which a man moulds a woman into a particular shape, that is where it becomes misogyny. Where once she is coarse and ignorant, she is now elegant and graceful, and that is all thanks to him (or the other male lead, Colonel Pickering). The play ends by dwelling on the question of who she can marry, not on what she is able now to do.

Illustrations by Feliks Topolski

Illustrations by Feliks Topolski

All this said, the story itself displays ambiguity in these developments. For instance, Higgins is shown to be comically rude and awkward in society. Higgins’ mother is a strong female character, and the young Freddy can be adequately described as a bimbo.

Which would all be fine except for Shaw’s preface and epilogue in this edition. In the former he describes his admiration for (the amittedly very impressive) Professor Henry Sweet (who I am also a big fan of, for different reasons), and by describes Higgins as being a character with no flaws. And by revealing Higgins’ his social awkwardness, Shaw does not intend to display feet of clay, but rather Higgins’ personal freedom. This revelation carries over into the epilogue as well where Shaw twice, favourably, cites Nietzche and dwells for a bizarrely long amount of time on H. G. Wells (the novels and the man) for a very trivial plot point. Shaw calls this epilogue a ‘sequel’, to the story, and it is. It tells us the story of Liza Doolittle, her marriage to Freddy, her difficulty in starting a flowershop business — which, uncharacteristically, she is not able to learn the business side of in the same fairly easy way that she learnt a different way of speaking. Shaw’s expressed reason for writing this ‘sequel’ is because he was incensed at the stage productions of his work which hinted at Higgins and Doolittle falling in love and marrying each other. He wrote this to set the record straight because, in his words

Galatea [Doolittle] never does quite like Pygmalion [Higgins]: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

So, in conclusion, man is the shaper, the creator; woman is the raw material to be changed and imposed on. That hardly makes me want to break into song.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on PAW 19 – Pygmalion (300) by Bernard Shaw

PAW 18 – Grand Babylon Hotel (176) By Arnold Bennett

Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett; Penguin Paperback 176; 1938 edition

Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett; Penguin Paperback 176; 1938 edition

Grand Babylon Hotel gave me a a couple surprises. Maybe it was off of reading Crome Yellow last week that I was expecting something a little more detached and erudite — I wasn’t expecting an adventure mystery thriller with the main protagonists being an American millionaire and his very capable daughter.

I got another surprise when I checked on when the book was published: 1902, which make it contemporary with Sherlock Holmes. However, the prose is as loose and accessible as something written much later. I think it could very rightly be seen not just as a precursor of the pulp fiction genre — especially reminiscent of Raymond Chandler in which nearly every chapter contains some sort of plot reversal — but also the type of book that Agatha Christie inspired.

The millionaire-as-detective angle was very effective. After all, where can’t a man with unlimited money go, and who can’t he speak to and get information from? Throw in an American penchant for revolvers and he makes a formidable adversary for any criminal crossing his path. And taking into consideration the fact that it was written over 100 years ago, it is very prescient. At one point one of the characters, a prince of the fictional Germanic country of Posen, remarks:

‘…These rich men have no secrets from each other. They form a coterie, closer than any coterie of ours. Eugen, and far more powerful. They talk, and in talking they rule the world, these millionaires. They are the real monarchs.’

‘Curse them!’ said Eugen.

This proves to be true since it is the monarchs themselves that find themselves needing the help of the American oligarch, and at the end it is shown that money answers all things, breaches of the law and suicide attempts alike. For all of that, however, it is an easy, quick, and enjoyable read and the multi-stranded plot is juggled with an easy deftness. This is a book that should definitely be more well known.


What is A Penguin a Week? Visit the original site.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on PAW 18 – Grand Babylon Hotel (176) By Arnold Bennett