The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain
US, 1876

The congregation being fully assembled now, the bell rang once more, to warn laggards and stragglers, and then a solemn hush fell upon the church, which was only broken by the tittering and whispering of the choir in the gallery. The choir always tittered and whispered all through service. There was once a church choir that was not ill-bred, but I have forgotten where it was now. It was a great many years ago, and I can scarcely remember anything about it, but I think it was in some foreign country. (Chapter 5)

Twain is a humorist, a storyteller, a keen observer of human nature – and clearly knew a thing or two about church choirs. I don’t think anything has changed since his time; save for the tolling of the church bell to “warn laggards,” he could be describing many services I’ve attended!

Tom Sawyer, US commemorative stamp of 1972 showing the whitewashed fence.

But what we really come for in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are the rollicking adventures of a rowdy boy and his chums, free in small-town mid-nineteenth century America to wander at will (or at least sneak out at will—no pesky house alarm systems to fuss with), finding—or creating—adventures of their own amusement. In between those inconvenient chores and school sessions and church services, of course. It is a story that has permeated our cultural conscious: it seems everyone knows the story of whitewashing the fence (which I was surprised to discover was in the opening chapters), or of Tom’s friendship with Huck Finn.

Tom Sawyer is a delightful summer book. It doesn’t quite say when it is set, and school is still in session as it opens, but I’m guessing June, and June is a perfect month to read it in. The days are long, the weather warm, and the reader is readily transported to the small river-town of Tom’s youth, ambling through the dusty streets or crashing “swords” in the forest.

One item that strikes me of interest: although Tom is clearly not into the idea of school, he is clearly a reader. He knows stories of Robin Hood and pirates, and the “proper” way of re-enacting their adventures, ideas all gleaned from books. There is no explanation: does St. Petersburg have a little lending library? Does Aunt Polly stock adventure books on her shelves? Unknown. But I love the idea of all these fairy-tale adventures winding their way somehow into Tom’s hands, then eagerly devoured and regurgitated for countless more hours of adventures and imaginations. He does not just these stories; he consumes them, absorbs them, and recreates them anew.

In a way, Tom’s story is itself a fairy-tale. While at times completely realistic—Twain does not hide from the reader the dark sides of mid-nineteenth century small towns, showing vignettes of poverty, alcoholism, and even grave robbery and murder—the end of the novel plays out like one of Tom’s imaginary adventures brought vividly to life. While it does not seem incredible to me that Tom should manage to get himself in and out of so many scrapes (in this way, he reminds me of a more mischievous Anne Shirley), the very last adventure seems so neatly gift-wrapped in a perfect ending bow, that it takes away for me a bit from the charm of the rest of the novel. I’ve seen the suggestion that what Twain was really doing here was poking at the moralizing tales of the day: instead of only the good little boys being rewarded, this time it is the most daring—but are they “bad”? It does seem telling that Tom Sawyer endures while the moralists are forgotten.

If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. (Chapter 2)

I read this as part of my “Realists and Romantics” reading project and for 20 Books of Summer. It also fills the “Classics with a Person’s Name” slot for Back to the Classics.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

Poirot Investigates
Agatha Christie
1925, England

Entry number four in the ongoing Agatha Christie challenge keeps us with Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings, only instead of a single mystery, we now have a set of fourteen unconnected short stories. (A side note: this is the American edition – the UK edition only contains 11.) These stories originally appeared in magazine format (Sketch in the UK, from April to October of 1923; Blue Book Magazine in the US, from October 1923 to April 1925), and were collected for publication in book format in 1924 (UK) and 1925 (US).

These are much on the same lines as the first two Hercule Poirot novel entries – Poirot exercises his grey cells, Hastings is obtuse, and the mystery is neatly wrapped up in the final pages. (Well…perhaps “The Chocolate Box” is less true to these lines, but it would be spoiling things to say too much.) However, rather than reminding me strictly of The Mysterious Affair at Styles or Murder on the Links, what really sprung to mind were the short mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. From reading the earlier novels, it was already apparent that Christie’s characters owed a debt to Doyle, but here I was even more forcefully reminded of his short story format. As in so many Holmes stories, we frequently see Poirot sitting in his rooms when a client arrives with a tricky little puzzle for Poirot to solve. In the opening story, “The Adventure of the ‘Western Star,’” he quickly deduces that the young woman walking up the street is coming to see him. And in “The Veiled Lady,” Poirot bemoans the quality of the criminal class (specifically his lack of interesting cases) and remarks that perhaps he should have taken up criminal acts himself. The ghost of Holmes haunts continually. This all adds up to the suggestion that these are still early Christie. On the other hand, I noticed less of the tendency to have Poirot solve the crime by means  of knowledge the reader doesn’t (and can’t) have; even when he seems to have pulled the answer out of thin air, a revisit to the start of the story shows tracks carefully laid for the reader. And we still get the opportunity to outwit Hastings, who remains remarkably obtuse at times, a perfect foil to Poirot.

All-in-all, they are enjoyable little diversions. None perhaps terribly memorable on their own, but each easily readable in a short bit of time, perfect as the just-before-bed read.

The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
c. 1200, Germany
A.T. Hatto, translator

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

Thus begins the medieval German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied. The poet’s introductory description is indeed apt, for it is full of both brave heroics and great tragedies.

One of several sources for Wagner’s four-work cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Nibelungenlied tells us the story of the great hero Siegfried and his fair Kreimhild. As the epic opens, Kreimhild declares that she will never love, for she believes that if she ever knows such happiness, it will only come with great pain. Siegfried, for his part, has heard the tales of Kreimhild’s beauty, and vowing to make her his wife, sets out from his homeland for Burgundy, where Kreimhild lives with her three brothers, Kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. The tales of Siegfried’s great strength and prowess as a warrior go before him, and he is warily greeted, but the kings are won over to admiration and friendship for Siegfried by his great bravery and he soon joins them in battle. The reward for his success in battle is his first sight of Kreimhild–who he nevertheless was already in love with–and despite her earlier protests against love, she in turn loves him. Gunther and Siegfried soon agree: if Siegfried will help Gunther win the hand of the proud Icelandic queen Brunhild, Siegfried will be granted Kreimhild’s hand in return.

A series of great feats–and great deceptions follow. And from these deceptions, great tragedy will come. Brunhild’s mistaken belief in Siegfried’s status as an inferior to Gunther (rather than an equal) will spur a great fight between herself and Kreimhild, and Brunhild, publicly humiliated, will plot Siegfried’s death in revenge. This can only mean further plotting and vengeance, for due to Brunhild’s schemes, Kreimhild’s brothers have twice betrayed her, and so many years later, remarried to King Etzel of Hungary, Kreimheld will plot against her brothers and their vassals in return.

One point of interest for me–and some mild amusement–is the frequency with which the poet tells us what is going to happen. There is no doubt from the first chapter that this will not end well, for so we are told: “the maidens will have reason to weep,” or, “the knights will rue the day that…” What a contrast to our contemporary abhorrence of “spoilers”! But this poem was written for an audience that knew the stories being told; The Nibelungenlied is likely the formalization of an oral tradition already well established.

The Nibelungenlied is described by its translator and a heroic epic “surpassed only by the Iliad,” and while I have not read enough epic poems to know the justice of this assertion, I did note points of comparison between the two poems. In both, themes of honor and vengeance underline much of the action. Just as Achilles, smarting from Agamemnon’s insult to his honor, does not enter the fray until he has reason to seek revenge for his dear friend Patroclus’s death, so many of Etzel’s sworn allies will not entertain Kreimhild’s schemes of revenge against the Burgundians until they feel compelled to defend their own honor as warriors or to seek revenge for their own friends, slain in the Burgundians’ desperate attempts to escape fate. In the end, in both poems, we see great feats of battle, great tests of courage and honor–and many, many deaths. More deaths, in fact in The Nibelungenlied–this is a story in which is seems the cycle of violence cannot end until nearly all in its path are consumed, save a scant few to tell the tale. It reminds me rather of the bloody revenge drama Titus Andronicus, though here we are spared the cannibalistic feast.

There is some inconsistency in The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild, so important to much of the inciting action, nearly completely disappears in the second half, and we never learn her fate. Characters seem to be introduced more than once. Some actions or words seem inexplicable on their own. The translator provides helpful notes and Appendices that explain possible reasons for these seeming contractions, primarily being, it seems, the melding of multiple older sources and adapting certain scenes to the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of his audience (such as making Siegfried more chivalrous). These minor inconsistencies aside, it is a gripping tale well told, and a poignant reminder that injustice and violence beget too often only more violence.

I read this for the Classics Club Spin #23.

Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Ficciones
Jorge Luis Borges
(1956 ed., Argentina)

In searching out my copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude (for a readalong I’m currently failing at) I found a sticky note on the front of the Spanish language edition. It my handwriting, “Read Ficciones first, then One Hundred Years of Solitude.” I don’t now recall why I wrote this instruction to myself. Was it a recommendation I ran across somewhere? Or was it the blurb on the front cover of my copy of Ficciones from Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “Without Borges the modern Latin American novel simply would not exist”? I don’t know. Regardless, I had planned to read Ficciones this year anyways, in part for Richard’s (Caravana de recuerdos) 2020 Argentine literature event, so I pulled it off my shelf and began.

I’ve actually read the first four stories previously but was apparently not inspired to work further. For I find that Borges IS work—in a good way. These are not light afternoon garden parties of stories, they are morning lectures by an erudite professor. The more the reader puts in, the more they will be rewarded. The more the reader returns, the more there is to see.

An Argentinian by birth, Borges was of Spanish, Portuguese and English heritage. As a youth, his family moved to Switzerland and, after World War I, he traveled and lived throughout Europe for some years.  Over the years, his style would continue to develop, touching on fantasy, philosophy, and perhaps even, per some critics, containing the beginnings of Latin American realismo magico. (I see hints of it, but I’m hardly an expert.) It is evident from his stories that not was only was Borges well-traveled but well-read, on a wide range of topics. Returning to his work now, ­­eight years after my first attempt, I am grateful for the lapse of time, for it has given me the opportunity to encounter more of Borges’s references for myself—even if I am still woefully ignorant of many of them (i.e., Schopenhauer, who remains just a name to me).

As currently published, Ficciones is a collection of two volumes, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941) and Artifices (1944; 3 stories added to 1956 edition). I’m not sure I can quite explain it, but I found tonal differences between the two parts. It seems to me that The Garden of Forking Paths is more experimental, while Artifices is more straightforward, but no, that doesn’t seem quite right either. Perhaps I was just getting more “used” to Borges by the time I reached the second half. There are themes the recur throughout both halves: fictional books, fictional authors, fictional lands, mirrors, multiplications, labyrinths, libraries. Many of his stories could be classified as a type of fantasy, but not the fantasy that gets all the press – far more philosophical; I think that’s the right word. (I’m hampered here by my near-zero knowledge of philosophy. I know about Plato’s cave and that’s about it. Adding to the to-do list. If you have recommendations of where to start, please share!) There also at times seems something mathematical about it all.

The stories that attract me the most are the ones that have a non-fiction styling about them. The reviews of books that don’t exist (but that sound wondrously interesting). The memorials to authors who never walked this earth. The journalistic account of events that aren’t even possible, or couldn’t have possibly been observed. There is something delightful in the matter-of-fact tone in which they are written. It is something that suggests to me as well the idea of the absurd, of humor sprinkled throughout, even when the stories themselves may relate terrible things.

While there is much that could be said on these—and if I were to do this again, I’d perhaps write up something on each story as I go—for now, I’ll leave it with some thoughts on some of my favorites.

“Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” (1939)

It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide–word for word and line for line–with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

I found “Pierre Menard” to be on the surface one of the most absurd in its concept. It also may be my favorite. It is written as if it is a defense, published in a literary magazine, of the late (fictional) author Pierre Menard, whose most notable work, in the mind of the unnamed critic, was to write portions of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but from his own head, not by copying it down. It seems a mind-boggling impossibility, and yet, it leads to some wonderful ideas regarding literary criticism and contextualization. Taking the concept at face value—had a Pierre Menard really produced Don Quixote in the early twentieth century, there truly would have been a completely different critical and contextual response to the work as compared to its seventeenth century counterpart. How could there not?

 The text of Cervantes and that of Menard are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer.

And at the same time, in its concluding paragraph, it reminds us that in our responses at readers, we read as if these very possibilities were so, for rare is the reader who only ever reads a book in relation to only what was written before without knowledge of all literature that has come after. Many wonderful ideas to consider.

 Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions. This technique, with its infinite applications, urges us to run through the Odyssey as if it were written after the Aeneid, and to read Le jardin du Centaure by Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique would fill the dullest books with adventure. Would not the attributing of The Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce be a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual counsels?

 “The Circular Ruins” (1940)

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though supernatural. He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality.

Of all the stories in the collection, “The Circular Ruins,” perhaps comes closest to our typical pop culture definition of “fantasy.” It tells the story of a man who determines to dream a man into physical being. I am reminded of the myth of Pygmalion, only our creator here seeks to create not of the substance of the earth, but of his mind. His process, his efforts, his results are laid out carefully, suggesting what could almost be called a realistic progression. It is a metaphor of creation, perhaps of the writing process, or any other art form, but perhaps it is a meditation on the ideas of religion and the many creation stories as well. Often, throughout his stories, Borges seems to venture into the realm of religion, but with a skeptical eye.

“The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941)

The last story of the first collection, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” seems at first a straightforward narrative. But as with so many of Borges’s stories, the payoff is in the conclusion. Never assume you know where you’re going until you get there (err…at least if you’re reading as inattentively as I am often guilty of). As with so many of the stories, themes of labyrinths, infinity, circularity recur. Did we have a concept of multiverse before Borges?

Then I reflected that all things happen, happen to one, precisely now. Century follows century, and things happen only in the present. There are countless men in the air, on land and at sea, and all that really happens happens to me.

“Death and the Compass” (1942)

In my notes, I call this a “proper mystery,” though perhaps that could be said of more than one of Borges’s stories. It is simple in its solution, though complex in its deduction. Like other stories in the Artifices half, I found it more straightforward to read. The narrative however, of a detective following a wickedly clever crime, meets me at my fondness for traditional detective fiction, but with the unmistakable markers of Borges still here: a multitude of references (he must have been so well read!), labyrinths, mirrors, Kabbalah, mysticism.

“The End” (1953) and
“The South” (1953)

While “The End” is earlier in the Artifices half of the  collection, the final story of Ficciones is “The South.” And yet it seems fitting for the order to be this way. “The End” is an imagining of the last chapter of Argentine epic Martin Fierro, while “The South” recounts the injury and recovery of a man who has just received a new copy of The Thousand and One Nights. At first, there seems no relation between the two, but as he recovers, Juan Dahlmann travels to the south of the country, the landscape begins to sound like that of “The End,” and we begin to see that perhaps the earlier story illuminates the conclusion of “The South.” Otherwise we are left with only a bit of foreshadowing to inform us. Unless of course, the seemingly straight-forward narrative of “The South” is not as it seems. Tantalizingly, there are several possibilities as to the actual nature, and truth of, the story, and the vagueness in which Borges leaves us seems a fitting end to the collection. (As a side note, with at least two stories in Ficciones referencing Martin Fierro, I have concluded that reading that epic poem needs to move up my “to read” list.)

These are not stories to be rushed through, but rather to be savored, meditated on, digested slowly. They are stories to return to as we grow as readers, to find ever something new, enjoy an ever better understanding. Looking back on the stories as I write this, I find that I want to return to them again, now, yet I think perhaps leaving some time to pass first, may be of infinite value, for how I may change as a reader, and in my understanding, can only promise new richness to come.

I read Ficciones as one of my Classics Club selections, for Richard’s 2020 Argentine Literature of Doom Event, as my selection “A Classic in Translation” for Back to the Classics and for Reading the Classics Challenge.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie
1921, England
Hercule Poirot

Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles Christie’s first novel, it is the first Hercule Poirot mystery. Set in the countryside during the First World War, it is a wonderful coincidence–one that likely enables a terrible crime to be solved correctly–that Poirot happens to be a war refugee living in the neighborhood and that a friend from the pre-war days, Hastings, is staying at Styles House, where the crime occurs. Hastings will prove the Watson to Poirot’s Holmes – though I must say, he strikes me as quite the inferior Watson. He prides himself as an observer and yet he never quite seems to get it–not merely in the detection of crime (for which we could all be given fails, as clever as the mastermind is here), but he doesn’t even seem able to recognize the truth of ordinary interactions between people, including those involving himself. It can be a bit frustrating for the reader at times, although perhaps this is intentional, to allow us a little feeling of superiority even when we fail spectacularly at solving the crime (err…as I always do, at least!)

There are all the ingredients of a typical Poirot novel: a country house setting, a small cast of suspects, a difficult case that the police can’t get right, red herrings, even a set of locked doors posing difficulties. Poirot performs his typical work of genius in neatly uncovering the solution at the very end. And yet–it didn’t quite feel “right” to me. Somehow, I didn’t feel as at home at Styles as have with later Christie novels.  Perhaps this is the reflection of it being a “first” – Poirot didn’t feel quite fully “Poirot-like” to me, yet, though that may because I am not used to seeing him through the eyes of Hastings. But the novel also didn’t feel quite as tight in its execution, and although I am quite used to not actually solving the crime, usually there’s this feeling of “Oh, right…” that didn’t quite happen for me here. So not quite my favorite Christie, but it certainly does nothing to dissuade me from more!

[Read in early 2019….and just now finally posting! Part of my Agatha Christie reading project.]