The Big Four – Agatha Christie

Book Cover: The Big Fout by Agatha Christie

The Big Four
Agatha Christie
England, 1927

After the cleverness of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, its successor, The Big Four comes as a bit of a surprise. No small town or manor house mystery novel, it is presents a tale of international intrigue, presenting Hercule Poirot’s attempts to bring down a major crime syndicate, represented by devious criminals from the US, France, China, and England who always seem to be just ahead of the famous Belgian detective. Hastings makes a return to narration, and we find ourselves chasing along with the pair as they attempt to head off “the Big Four’s” ever-masterful plots. It is almost a Sherlock-vs-Moriarty adventuring.

The premise appears promising; however, I unfortunately found it the least compelling of Christie’s mysteries to this point. It seemed to me it was more a series of mediocre short stories in search of a unifying plot. Only after finishing did I learn that the chapters actually did start out as short stories, and the novel was cobbled together at a low point in her personal life when writing was difficult. A bit of a disappointment, really.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Book cover: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Agatha Christie
England, 1926

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Agatha Christie’s most well known and well-regarded mysteries, and on my first reading, my impression is rightly so.

It is a Poirot novel, but instead of faithful Hastings as the narrator–apparently he is happily married and living in Argentina–we are treated to the narration of Dr. James Sheppard, the doctor to the small town of King’s Abbot, where everyone knows everything and gossip is the local currency–one Dr. Sheppard’s sister specializes in. Not only are we treated to Dr. Sheppard’s narration, for who else to be called immediately to the scene after a murder than a doctor (and the police, of course), but to his sister’s sometimes insightful, sometimes wishful observations.

Not long after the murder occurs, the victim’s niece, eager to clear her fiancé of suspicion, hires M. Hercule Poirot, recently retired and living next door to the Sheppards. How fortuitous for Caroline! But more to the point, how fortuitous for the reader, for Flora Ackroyd appeals to Dr. Sheppard to help her in approaching the famous detective, and soon we have a Sheppard-Poirot pairing as they set off to investigate.

It is a mystery full of secrets and motives: money, love, blackmail, drugs. And they are doled out perfectly, allowing the reader to start to see the specifics of who is up to what, while at the same time obscuring the larger picture. Christie ensures that we aren’t able to see the forest, so many trees are in the way. And yet, once the final pages have been turned and the last revelations have been made–in typical Hercule Poirot dramatic fashion (though to be fair, I don’t believe Dr. Sheppard accused Poirot of being dramatic nearly the way Hastings so often does!)–the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Everything is there, or at least nearly so, if you can sift through to see it. Thoroughly satisfying.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Italy, 1958 (posthumous)
Archibald Colquhoun, translator

And the Prince, who had found Donnafugata unchanged, was found very much changed himself; for never before would he have issued so cordial an invitation: and from that moment, invisibly, began the decline of his prestige. (Chapter II)

The Leopard is a novel of change and of decline. Set against the backdrop of the Risorgimento, or Italian unification, in the mid- to late-1800s, it is the story of the Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, patriarch of a large but declining family and fortune. The titular leopard, his presence looms large, yet it is obvious that the Salina influence and importance is on the wane. Though he does nothing outwardly to resist the upheavals about him, the inevitable changes in political structure, economics, and even culture signal clearly towards a less illustrious future for Don Fabrizio and his heirs, even without the narrator directly intruding into the past with comments or allusions to much later events. This is a narrative trick that I don’t recall coming across in other historical fiction and I am torn between the impressions of being jolted out of the past of the novel and the contrasting grounding of the novel in a solid reality.

There’s something in The Leopard that reminds me of Gabriel García Márquez. Not the magic realism, but the themes. My memory is of a melancholy strain through the (few) books I’ve read by García Márquez, and the back half of One Hundred Years of Solitude shares the same sense of decline of a family. In some ways Prince Fabrizio reminds me of Úrsula, knowing what’s coming, yet unable to avoid it. Time marches on but great families don’t always.

‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ (Chapter I)

Yet there is something beautiful in The Leopard, too. The optimism of the younger generation, of those fully in support of the Risorgimento. The loving descriptions of the physical Sicily, of its people. Even as the narrative progresses and becomes more explicit about the fortunes of the family (the final chapters are titled “Death of a Prince” and “Relics”), the closing pages have a poignant beauty to them, lingering after the last page is closed.

I can’t help but feeling that I have only scratched the surface in my understanding of this novel. It is already considered a classic of Italian literature, and if any good classics requires return visits, I believe this one qualifies. It is only a pity that Tomasi finished writing so little before his death.

I read this for my Classics Club list and as a classic with an animal in the title for Back to the Classics Challenge.

Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey
Anne Brontë
England, 1847

Agnes Grey is unremarkable. Not remarkably pretty, or wealthy, she is home-educated and sheltered from the larger world, yet she has a hidden desire to see more of it. The youngest daughter in a respectable family, she is raised in love and kindness. Poor financial decisions by her father–in a foolish gambit to provide better for his family–lead instead to near-ruin. So Agnes seeks a post as governess, one of the few respectable options for a woman, hoping to contribute a small sum to the family coffers, and see a little of life beyond her village.

Agnes Grey is unremarkable. It is Agnes’s first-person narration of her life as a governess, in two different positions. It is to the point, illustrating her powerlessness in a situation where she is neither servant nor family, expected to instill knowledge and character in reluctant learners over whom she has no power to enforce obedience. Her position is impossible. And while there is potential is such a story–certainly, it offers a slice of Victorian life to a contemporary reader–the novel seems instead to me slight, or perhaps inconsistent. There is somehow a change in tone in the narrative as it transitions from the first family to the second—something that I can’t quite put my finger on to define, but that created a different feel to the reading between the first two parts. For while the opening chapters read as pure memoir, a non-fiction narrative, the larger portion of the novel trips along in the more customary manner of a light-romance. Neither feel is wrong, but to me they don’t blend well together.

There is, however, something very charming in the tale of Agnes Grey, at least once you get past the dry recitation of the opening chapters narrating her life up until the point she joins the Murray family. It is with the Murrays, though, that life is allowed to happen for Agnes, for despite her duties, she still has opportunity to meet those outside the household–often on behalf of a household member who no longer wishes to keep a promised visit. Agnes’s world opens up, and we see with her the happinesses and sorrows that accompany it. But though charming, I found it conventional (and perhaps a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author). The conventionality of the telling, the lack of character growth, and the unambiguous moralizing (guess who gets a happy ending) diminish the importance of Brontë’s message. We can read it for the second-half romance, be thoroughly charmed, and put it away on the shelf, forgetting the messages of how we ought to treat one another, which ultimately is the most valuable point of the novel.

I read this for the current Classics Club spin and as a title by a woman for the 2021 Back to the Classics challenge.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Stephen Mitchell, 2006
Akkadian, c. 1700-1000 BCE

Humbaba said, “Gilgamesh have mercy
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life, I will be your slave,
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.”

Enkidu said, “Dear friend, don’t listen
to anything that the monster says.
Kill him before you become confused.”
(Book V)

There is a scene near the center of the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem Gilgamesh that strikes me. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his closest friend, are in the midst of the Cedar Forest. Aided by Shamash, the sun god, they have the monster Humbaba at their mercy. Humbaba is a guardian, charged by the god Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest. He is fierce, frightening. Enkidu, stout of heart and fighter though he is, fears him. Even Gilgamesh, who decreed that they must kill Humbaba to “drive out evil from the world”—or perhaps merely for the fame—grows afraid once within Humbaba’s presence. But this doesn’t stop the epic’s protagonists. They subdue Humbaba. The monster now pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh seems to hesitate. Perhaps the victory is enough. But Enkidu, initially opposed to the journey to the Cedar Forest and the killing of Humbaba, eggs the king on. So the monster is slain, the trees are cut down. It is not clear from the poem if all of the trees are cut down, or just some. Are they to be shipped to Uruk for construction, or is this merely a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s might?

It is a turning point of the poem. Leading up to these events, we have been introduced to the protagonists and have seen them set off on their early adventures. But now we watch them make a decision: to kill, to destroy. Coupled with the next episode (when they kill the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar as punishment for Gilgamesh’s refusal to become her husband) we have reached the apotheosis of Gilgamesh’s arrogance. The gods will decide that someone must pay the price for these crimes against the gods, against their favored monsters. And so Enkidu must die.

Coming at this from a twenty-first century lens of conservation and stewardship, it is hard not to read Gilgamesh’s arrogance and destruction here as emblematic of the arrogance and destruction of humankind. It suggests to me to the question: who is the real monster: Gilgamesh or Humbaba? We aren’t given enough context to know. A twenty-first century reading is likely completely off base, but it speaks to the power of this ancient epic, that even with the passing of millennia, still it resonates.

One of the oldest surviving pieces of literature we know, Gilgamesh is perhaps most familiar to many Western readers for the story related in the latter half of the poem (Book IX) that greatly resembles the flood story found in the Biblical book of Genesis. But the epic is mostly Gilgamesh’s story and his personality dominates. Enkidu–wild man of nature–has been sent by the gods to relieve the citizens of Uruk of the tyranny of a king who “Takes the son from his father and crushes him,/takes the girl from her mother and uses her,” (Book I) and to the extent that Gilgamesh is distracted from his city and his people, this is successful. But Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s balance, does nothing to subdue Gilgamesh’s ego. It is only Enkidu’s death–the price paid for slaughtering Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven–that knocks Gilgamesh back. Yet still he rages: now he is forced to face mortality but still he seeks to subvert it, searching out the only known man to have defeated death and been granted immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.

It is a short poem (at least what survives), but still manages to pack in what feels like a lot, not only of the adventures of Gilgamesh, but the journey he takes in learning to accept that he too will die, no matter how great he is or his city or his feats. The death of Enkidu brings this to the fore but it still takes Gilgamesh additional wanderings and ultimately, failings, before he can accept mortality for himself. Gilgamesh’s pride in his own abilities is humbled, not by another, but by the ravages of time. And yet, at the end he still brags, showing off his city, the great city of Uruk. It is if he knows that thousands of years later we will still read of him and his exploits.

I have now read two English versions of Gilgamesh, the first a prose version by N.K. Sandars (1972 revision) and the second a poetic version by Stephen Mitchell (2004, the version quoted here). I found the poetic version to my preference, though I do not agree with all of Mitchell’s liberties with the text. True, given the nature of the original—fragmentary and difficult for all but the most specialized scholars to read—any edition for the lay reader will require additions and clarification to make sense of it. Mitchell helpfully includes notes on his changes (indeed, his notes and Introduction combined are longer than the poem), but I question why he rearranged sections of the poem. And I would prefer that he hadn’t removed some of the repetitions, which he felt would be off-putting to the contemporary reader. Perhaps. But to me the circularity, the word-for-word repetitions of complete passages, gives a sense not just of what the original may have been like, but of a literature that is in fact not Western. On the other hand, he produced a very readable text that maintained a poetic from and kept the same divisions (largely) of the originals, while Sandars’s version turns it to prose chapters that break in different locations than the clay tablets on which it was originally found.

I read Gilgamesh as part of my Classics Club project list and for Back to the Classics, Translation category.