So I finally got around to “Classics” this month- Cheers all around! Gave up on Moby Dick (I’ll try again next decade), but here are classic novels I finally got around to reading that I should have probably already read:
Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Like most people I have read Fitzgerald’s other- and more famous- classic The Great Gatsby, but I always felt bad that I hadn’t read Fitzgerald more extensively since he’s supposed to one of the Great American Writers, and all.
In Tender is the Night you get all the Fitzgerald touchstones: pretty people with no jobs and a lot of money, drinking, adultery, and depressing endings. And of course it’s all written very well too. Yet, what attracts most people to The Great Gatsby: the eloquent encapsulation of the Jazz Age- a real time commentary on the era hurtling unknowingly for a huge crash- is not evident here. Instead we have something after the crash- in America, and for Fitzgerald’s life personally, and it’s older, perhaps a bit wiser, but mostly melancholic.
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the book was inadvertent. In an example of synchronicity, shortly after finishing the book I watched the film A Dangerous Method which was very evocative of the novel. In it Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung who is mentioned in Tender is the Night as contemporary of the main character Dick Diver (a promising Psychoanalyst practicing in Switzerland) and his wife Nicole is a privileged and troubled patient of the sanitarium (with serious Daddy issues), akin to Keira Knightley’s character in the film.
Of course the actual inspiration for Nicole was Zelda Fitzgerald who also a patient of European sanitarium. The main draw of the book is reading the thinly veiled account of the eventual dissolution of the Fitzgerald’s marriage. In this way, even though Dick Diver is not a sympathetic character (actually more just pathetic by the end), I have to commend Fitzgerald for what is a really honest look at such a grim topic. Of course with that said- bearing in mind that the story is largely autobiographical- Tender is the Night is amazingly unemotional and detached- as so many books from this generation of writers are. This might be something you like (especially if you are a guy- sorry about the sexism) but is not really my cup of tea. Beautifully well-written, and hauntingly sad, but ultimately left me cold.
Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
As with the previous book this was another “lesser” work by a Great American Writer I wanted to get to know better. Just like every angsty teenager I read Catcher in the Rye in the hope to find a kindred spirit with Holden Caufield. While I more or less liked the book I don’t think I really identified with Caufield like so many others do. So, it was a treat to be introduced to the eccentric brother and sister: Franny and Zooey. Franny is the idealist and is in the middle of a nervous breakdown- a sort of extreme ennui, Hamlet times ten… you get the picture. In the first story bearing her name we see her on a date with her beau right before she has the breakdown, and in the second story, “Zooey” we are introduced to her older brother and later see his attempts at explaining to Franny our role in this crazy mixed up world, a sort of answer to “What’s it all about?”.
In this story I was delighted to see characters that I connected with in spite of the fact that they are completely dissimilar to me. Perhaps because they are a bit older than Mr. Caufield their philosophizing don’t seem too percocious, or perhaps it’s just the intimate time frame of the stories- each happening ostensibly in real time (Damn, this would be a great play!) that make even Franny’s breakdown believable (who among us haven’t spent an afternoon on their parent’s couch moping?)
As a side note, in yet another example of synchronicity, just a few months ago I read The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides, in which the character Mitch becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer. Of course this is a reference to Franny and Zooey, and it is this prayer that drives Franny to her breakdown as it is a prayer that is meant to be repeated over and over and over until it becomes automatic and the prayer is no long what one does but who one is.
Either way you cut is Salinger is a gifted writer- a storyteller trading in emotions, intellectual musings, and relationships over plot-evident in both The Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zooey. What more could an English major want?
Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
Completing the list of authors I read in High School that I’m catching up with now is… Jane Austen! As a bit of a Janite I’ve read all of her other books, but somehow never got around to finishing Northanger Abbey, the first one she wrote, and the last one that was published. And what a special book this is. It is certainly set apart from the rest of the Austen cannon- even though all the main parts are there: a marriage, a misunderstanding, proud upper-class elders and social commentary galore, Austen offers up a slightly different story here.
It is a joy to see the novel that Austen sets out to write- a sort of loving send up of the gothic romaces she read as a young woman (which were terribly popular at the time) but with a more realistic, modern, British twist; compared to what the book becomes- the germ of the type of novels she will become known for.
It’s almost as if you can see Austen as she’s writing the story getting more and more engrossed with making fun a the particular foibles that one see with certain types of people that frequent Bath- a city in which Austen lived for some time. After devoting over half the novel to this she then realizes, “Oh yes gothic novel parody- must get back to that!”. Quite late in the story our heroine finally makes it to the eponymous residence and Austen is able to poke a little fun at her romantic notions of living in a Abbey for a few pages, before finishing the story in the type of tidy ending that readers will see from her in her following efforts
It sounds like such a fan-girl thing to say, but it is truly fun to see Austen becoming the writer we now know her as. The next book she would write after Northanger Abbey is Pride and Prejudice and it is here that we see Jane Austen come into her own- casting off her influences from the 18th century novels she loved so much and creating something wholly her own and truly novel.
But before she writes that book we have Northanger Abbey– a book that would have probably gotten lost in the shuffle if it weren’t for the famous name attached to it, but is still wonderful in its own way. And for those readers who love to make fun of the romance plots in Austen novels, please read this book. It is here that you can see even an Austen novel with very little romance (yes there is Catherine and Henry- but as much as we love Henry theirs is not a romance for the ages) can still be charming and delightful thanks solely to Austen’s playful language and delightful social commentary
Also read this month: Insurgent, by Veronica Roth; Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol; Cinder, by Marissa Meyer; Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs; and Baby’s In Black, by Arne Bellstorf (Clearly I was catching up on my Teen books!)
Next Month’s theme: “Historical Fiction”… more specifically, nominees of the UK’s “Walter Scott Prize”