Classics Club Spin #21

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin: Spin #21.

Here’s how it works:

I am to post a list of 20 titles of books as yet unread on my classics club list by next Monday, September 23rd. On that date the Classics Club will post a number. I then have until October 31st to read the book on my list with that number.

Here’s my list:

  1. Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac  
  2. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories   
  3. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery  
  4. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!  
  5. Styron, William. Darkness Visible  
  6. McEwan, Ian. Atonement  
  7. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman  
  8. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird  
  9. Agee, James. A Death in the Family  
  10. Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle  
  11. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View  
  12. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time  
  13. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge  
  14. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  15. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment  
  16. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories  
  17. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs  
  18. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd  
  19. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!  
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire

And now, we wait.

CC Spin: Review, “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

O’Neill, nevertheless, remains all but unique in his persistent and increasingly more nearly exclusive attempt to deal with modern life in such a way as to achieve the effect of classic tragedy. . . . Certainly no other significant playwright has so persisted in the conviction that, if a drama is to achieve great excellence, it must deal with man’s relation to God—or, if one prefers, with his relation to forces outside himself (p. 1249).*

Born in a hotel on Broadway in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, a popular actor of romantic melodrama. Eugene spent much of his youth on tour with his father or in different boarding schools. 

After a year at Princeton (from which he was suspended for a prank) he worked at clerical and journalism jobs, then signed on as a sailor on voyages to Australia, South Africa, South America, and Central America. After his return to the U.S., he came down with tuberculosis in 1912. Five months in a sanitarium followed by a further year of convalescence provided him the opportunity to read widely.

In 1914 O’Neill attended a class in play writing at Harvard taught by the famous Professor George Pierce Baker. In the summer of 1915 O’Neill fell in with a group of vacationers from Greenwich Village summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This was the beginning of his experiences with improvised theatrical productions, which lasted until 1924. The members of this little theater group were widely interested in art, literature, and politics, including theories of nihilism, Marxism, and Freudianism, as approaches to social revolution.

Throughout his career O’Neill continued to explore dramatically “the eternally tragic predicament of man struggling for some understanding and some justification of himself in a universe always mysterious and often seemingly inimical” (p. 1244).* 

O’Neill suffered from several health problems, including alcoholism and depression, for most of his life. He died in Boston on November 27, 1953, at age 65.

“The playwright of today,” O’Neill once wrote to George Jean Nathan, “must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new one for the surviving primitive, religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with” (p. 1246).*

Four of O’Neill’s plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama:

  • Beyond the Horizon (1920)  
  • Anna Christie (1922)  
  • Strange Interlude (1928)  
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956; awarded posthumously)

He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.

*Reference

Literary History of the United States, 4th ed., revised (New York: Macmillan, 1974).


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  ISBN 0-375-70917-7

The Iceman Cometh was completed in 1939 but wasn’t published and produced until 1946.

The play is set in the summer of 1912, in Harry Hope’s rooming house and bar in downtown New York. The bar features “[t]wo windows, so glazed with grime one cannot see through them” (p. 3). The walls and ceiling used to be white but are “now so splotched, peeled, stained and dusty that their color can best be described as dirty” (p. 3). A group of washed-up has-beens in various stages of drunkenness occupy this sad, dingy place as Act One begins: a former circus man, a former police lieutenant, a Harvard Law School graduate, a former Boer fighter, a former Captain of British Infantry, a former Boer War correspondent, a former editor of Anarchist periodicals, a former Anarchist, a bartender, and a couple of prostitutes, all residents of Harry’s rooming house. 

In these assembled characters it’s easy to see the causes and events of the time that O’Neill was interested in exploring. All of them have outlived their former occupations and now share a denunciation of life, represented by their extreme states of drunken stupor. Larry, the former anarchist, sums up the situation of all of them in a speech near the beginning of Act One:

To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. . . . What’s before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I’m damned tired, and it can’t come too soon for me” (p. 9).

The play’s main character is Theodore Hickman, known as Hickey, a transient hardware salesman whose impending arrival for Harry’s annual birthday party the others eagerly await. Hickey exhibits “a salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship. . . . He has the salesman’s mannerisms of speech, an easy flow of glib, persuasive convincingness” (p. 59). When he finally arrives near the end of Act One, he tells the others he has come to “save you from pipe dreams. I know now, from my experience, they’re the things that really poison and ruin a guy’s life and keep him from finding any peace. . . .  Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows” (p. 63).

Act Two presents Harry’s birthday party. The characters express their dismay with Hickey for telling them that they all need to stop drinking and face reality by acknowledging their pipe dreams and admitting that they’ll never fulfill those dreams.

Act Three opens as the tomorrow Hickey has warned his companions about. The characters all spruce themselves up and swear off the booze so that they can go out and face the world, looking to get their old jobs back or find something else meaningful to do. But Hickey reminds them, “as I’ve told you over and over, it’s exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you’ve got to kill them like I did mine” (p. 142). After they’ve all left, Rocky, the bartender, predicts that everyone will come back. Hickey retorts, “Of course . . . By tonight they’ll all be here again. You dumbbell, that’s the whole point” (p. 147). 

As Act Four opens, we see the characters once again sprawled around the bar. Each one is now even more embittered than before. Hickey tells them how he has dealt with the human condition they all face. In this bleak ending, with their hopes and pipe dreams finally and completely dashed, the characters accept life’s hopelessness and again drink themselves into oblivion in Harry Hope’s bar.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Club Spin #20

It’s time for another CC Spin, The Classics Club Spin #20. Yes, this is the event that made me decide it was time to redo my entire Classics Club list. This spin is based on that new list.

Here’s the procedure: By Monday, April 22nd, I am to create a list of 20 books from my Classics Club list and post it here. On Monday the CC bloggers will choose and post the lucky number. I must then read the book with that number from my spin list by May 31st.

Check back here next week for the announcement of which book I’ll be reading.

  1. Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac
  2. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories
  3. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery
  4. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  5. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
  6. McEwan, Ian. Atonement
  7. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  8. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird
  9. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  10. Sarton, May. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing
  11. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View
  12. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time
  13. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge
  14. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  15. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  16. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
  17. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs
  18. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  19. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

 

Update: The Lucky Number Is . . .

Number 19!

So I will be reading The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill. I never think to grab a play to read (probably because there are very few plays on my shelves), so this is a good thing.

Look for my review some time before May 31st.

New Classics Club List

A recent call for a Classics Club Spin reminded me that I need to re-examine my Classics Club commitment. When I originally signed up for the Classics Club back in March 2014, I put together a list of just over 50 books that I pledged to read by March 1, 2019.

Well, that date has come and gone, and I’ve read fewer than half of those books. Even when I made an effort to go back and look at that list to choose the book I’d read next, I usually couldn’t find something that appealed to me. These are the books from that original list that I managed to read over the last five years:

1. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
2. Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
3. Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
4. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
5. Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
6. Joyce, James. Dubliners
7. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
8. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology
9. Miller, Walter M., Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz
10. Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables
11. Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels
12. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
13. Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea
14. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle
15. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
16. Steinbeck, John. Tortilla Flat
17. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
18. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five
19. Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
20. Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road

I’ve simply run out of entries on that list that appeal to me any more.

Consequently, I’ve decided to scratch the original list and start over again. During the past few years I’ve filled my Kindle with about 1,300 books, most of which I chose because they sounded interesting when they came up on my daily emails of bargain offerings. When I took a look at those ebooks, I discovered many of them are literary classics.

Here, then, is my brand new Classics Club list. It includes mostly new titles, though I’ve also included a few from the original list that I still want to read.

My New clasics club list

Start date: May 1, 2019
Completion date: May 1, 2024

1. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
2. Auchincloss, Louis. Last of the Old Guard
3. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
4. Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine
5. Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths
6. Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine
7. Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac
8. Caspary, Vera. Bedilia
9. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
10. Christie, Agatha. Crooked House
11. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge
12. Connell, Evan S. Mrs. Bridge
13. Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays
14. Dos Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer
15. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
16. Eliot, George. Middlemarch
17. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!
18. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
19. Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock
20. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
21. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls
22. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery
23. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View
24. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories
25. James, Henry. The Ambassadors
26. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
27. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs
28. Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird
29. Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook
30. Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano
31. March, William. The Bad Seed
32. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. One Hundred Years of Solitude
33. Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend
34. McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses
35. McEwan, Ian. Atonement
36. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire
37. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
38. Oates, Joyce Carol. With Shuddering Fall
39. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
40. Piercy, Marge. He, She and It
41. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time
42. Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1
43. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird
44. Sarton, May. As We Are Now
45. Sarton, May. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing
46. Stegner, Wallace. The Spectator Bird
47. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
48. Styron, William. Lie Down in Darkness
49. Tevis, Walter. The Man Who Fell to Earth
50. Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle
51. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
52. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway
53. Wyndham, John. The Day of the Triffids

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Gothic Book Tag

#CCgothicbooktag

Here’s another exercise for the Halloween season from the Classics Club: Gothic Book Tag. The assignment is to post answers to 13 questions.

(1) Which classic book has scared you the most?

This has to be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (continued in #2)

(2) Scariest moment in a book?

That moment in “The Pit and the Pendulum” when that slowly descending, polished-edged pendulum finally makes its initial blood-producing trail across my body …

(3) Classic villain that you love to hate?

Probably Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca (see #7)

(4) Creepiest setting in a book?

Manderley as described by the unnamed narrator in her dream near the end of the novel. The previously beautiful estate becomes, in her dream, a place of death and decay threatening to devour and consume her.

(5) Best scary cover ever?

I am always taken aback at avid discussions of book covers. I pay almost no attention to them. I guess that’s probably because I know from reading about a book whether I’m going to read it or not. If I am, then I take it off the shelf with almost no regard for the cover.

(6) Book you’re too scared to read?

I don’t think “too scared” is quite the right description, but there are two books that I refuse to read because I’m pretty sure some of the content will curdle my stomach:

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

(7) Spookiest creature in a book?

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I admit that this vision, for me, comes from the film rather than from the book itself. But that crazy-eyed Mrs. Danvers standing happily amidst the flames is the most haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

(8) Classic book that haunts you to this day?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s so haunting not because of its fantasy, but because of its reality: that’s how women really were treated at that time.

(9) Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?

Nothing comes to mind here. I wonder if that’s because all good gothic literature makes us expect—or at least not be surprised by—any of the devious twists.

(10) Classic book you really, really disliked?

This has nothing to do with gothic literature or Halloween, but I have always disliked The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I’ve read it three times now, and, as much as I try to see it as a seminal feminist tract, all I ever see is a selfish woman who wants to avoid any responsibilities.

(11) Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?

I guess that would have to be poor Fortunato from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this story the first-person narrator entices his neighbor Fortunato to his wine cellar with the promise of sampling a rare vintage of an exotic wine, Amontillado. The narrator gets Fortunato drunk as they navigate their way to the wine cellar, then chains him to the wall and taunts him while using a trowel to finish building a wall to entomb Fortunato forever.

What makes this story so disturbing is that the narrator is very vague about his motivation for walling up Fortunato; he refers only to numerous insults but gives no details. It’s hard to believe that even repeated insults call for such a gruesome death. And 50 years later the narrator is still bragging about what he did to Fortunato, who still hangs in chains under the narrator’s villa.

Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime…

(12) List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.

In no particular order:

  1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  3. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken
  4. “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
  5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

(13) Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

—Edgar Allan Poe

Bonus

I did a  Halloween edition of Last Week’s Links . Here are some items I found afterwards.

Before Watching ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ Read These 13 Haunted Books

Moral Questions Lurk Beneath a Ghost Story in ‘Melmoth’

Reviewer Parul Sehgal calls this newly released novel a “Gothic novel … to its core, from its filigreed sentences to its twisty, supernatural plot.”

AN EDUCATION IN HORROR: 7 Classics of Dread, Suspense, and the Uncanny

Horror gets to the heart of it (sometimes quite bloodily) and I wouldn’t trade its dark lessons learned for those of any other genre. In these days of national and international turmoil and too much terrible mortal trauma, horror seems more important than ever for punching through to the deep what’s and possible why’s of all these calamities.

10 Great Horror Books for Wimps

10 NOVELS THAT CAPTURE NORTHERN ENGLAND’S BROODING MENACE

From the flat-vowelled, low-pitched voices of the characters who tell the stories, to the turbulent windswept landscapes in which the mysteries play out, novels set in the north of England have an atmosphere of brooding menace all of their own.

The Scariest Movies of 2018

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #18

The Classics Spin #18

I love these Classics Spins because they get me reading the books on my list when I might otherwise avoid them.

Here’s how it works: I list 20 books here that I have yet to read from my original list of 50+ classics. On Wednesday, August 1, the Classics Club will announce a number, and I have to read whatever book on my list has that number.

So here’s my list:

  1. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  2. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  3. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
  8. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  9. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  13. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  14. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  15. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  16. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  17. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  18. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway

 

Update

And the winning number is . . . 9! So I get to read The Magnificent Ambersons this month.

And here’s something weird: Right after I posted my list of 20, I thought, “I hope The Magnificent Ambersons number comes up.” And it did! What are the chances of that happening? (Yes, I know it’s one in 20, but I like to think of it as a wonderful synchronicity, a reward from the universe allowing me to do what I wanted to do anyway.)

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #13: “Cold Sassy Tree”

It’s time to report back on The Classics Spin #13, as explained in my post.

Burns, Olive Ann. Cold Sassy Tree
Dell, 1984; rpt. 1994
ISBN: 0–385–31258-X

On July 5, 1906, Grandpa Blakeslee instructs his grandson, 14-year-old Will Tweedy, to summon relatives to a family meeting. Grandpa then informs the family that he intends to marry Miss Love Simpson. The announcement causes a scandal in the town of Cold Sassy, Georgia, since Grandma Blakeslee has been dead only three weeks and Miss Simpson is half Grandpa’s age, and a Yankee. In Cold Sassy Tree Will narrates how the scandal played out in this small town. Along the way he paints a vivid picture of what life was like in rural Georgia at the turn of the twentieth century, with highlights such as the arrival of automobiles and the social tension between the “lintheads” who work in the cotton mills and the merchants and professionals who live on their own side of the tracks.

Will lets us know on the opening page that he’s telling the story eight years after the fact. Given Will’s age at the time of the events (14) and his first-person narration, I expected Cold Sassy Tree would be a typical coming-of-age story. The point of this type of story is to let readers know what the narrator has learned from the experience. The novel does eventually turn in that direction, although it starts out with maddening slowness. I almost gave up on the book early because all the goofy humor quickly wore thin.

In coming-of-age stories there are two set topics young characters must learn about: death and sex. Will learns about death early, not only because of his grandmother’s death but also because of the precariousness of life in a time before antibiotics. He slowly comes face-to-face with the fact of sexuality in the undercurrents of all the scandalous talk of the town’s residents. (It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Grandpa Blakeslee is only 59 when his first wife dies.) Will also begins to realize his own sexuality in the attraction he feels but cannot initially explain to one of the young mill workers at school.

By the end of the novel Will has matured enough to know that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life in Cold Sassy managing the family’s general store, despite Grandpa’s entreaties: “Well, in the matter of my future, I meant to have mine” (p. 390). On the novel’s last page he lets us know that, even though he went off to college, he still keeps a treasure box holding his journal and several tokens representing his early life in Cold Sassy.

I rate this book three stars out of five.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #13

The Classics Spin #13

I love these Classics Spins because they get me reading the books on my list when I might otherwise avoid them.

Here’s how it works: I list 20 books here that I have yet to read from my original list of 50+ classics. Tomorrow, June 6, the Classics Club will announce a number, and I have to read whatever book on my list has that number.

So here’s my list:

  1. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  2. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  3. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle (1948)
  7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
  8. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  9. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  13. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  14. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  15. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
  16. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  17. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  18. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway

And the Winner Is . . .

#15. So I will be reading Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Burns by August 1.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz”

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
© 1959

leibowitzThis book was popular when I was in college back in the late 1960s. I never got around to reading it back then, and the same mass market paperback has been kicking around on my bookshelves ever since then. It won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that deals with the themes of recurrent history and of the conflicts between church and state, and between faith in science. It comprises three sections:

Part I: Fiat Homo (“let there be man”)
Part II: Fiat Lux (“let there be light”)
Part III: Fiat Voluntas Tua (“let thy will be done”)

Part I opens 600 years after nuclear devastation, known as the Flame Deluge, destroyed 20th century civilization. Isaac Leibowitz, who had been a scientific engineer with the U.S. military, started a monastic order to preserve as much knowledge as possible by hiding books, memorizing books, and writing out new copies. The order’s abbey in the Utah desert is the repository for the Memorabilia, the remaining documents of the earlier civilization. We learn that after the nuclear devastation, there had been a backlash against the science and technology that had produced it, a period known as the Simplification, when learning, even the ability to read, became a cause for execution. For 600 years the Order of Leibowitz had been keeping safe the Memorabilia for a time when the world was once again ready for it. Part I ends with the canonization of Leibowitz as Saint Leibowitz.

As Part II opens, 600 years after Part I, civilization is beginning to emerge from the previous dark age. While scientists study the Memorabilia at the abbey and begin to make crude instruments from the preserved descriptions, political unrest and manipulation heat up.

After another 600 years, in Part III, mankind once again has nuclear weapons along with spaceships and extraterrestrial colonies. Members of the Order of Saint Leibowitz load the Memorabilia onto a ship and head off toward another planet just as the people of earth once again destroy themselves through nuclear attack.

Through its three sections this novel examines the themes of the cyclical recurrence of history and the eternal conflicts between darkness and light, knowledge and ignorance, truth and deception, religion and science, and power and subjugation. A Canticle for Leibowitz has remained in print since its original publication and is generally considered one of the outstanding works of science fiction. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #12: “Darkness at Noon”

Related Post:

darkness at noon

Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
Translated by Daphne Hardy
Original publication date: 1940
Rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1966
ISBN 0–553–26595–4

 

Originally written in German and translated into English by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy, Darkness at Noon was first published in 1940. Set in an unnamed country, the book is an allegory for the USSR’s 1938 purges during which Stalin worked to cement his position as dictator by eliminating potential rivals.

In an opening note Koestler wrote:

The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory.

The Classics ClubThe main character, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is imprisoned and tried for treason against the government that he helped to create. As he contemplates his life, Rubashov realizes the Party, which has been in power for 20 years, is no closer than it originally was to accomplishing its goal of creating a socialist utopia. He remembers, with some shame and guilt, his own earlier actions of betrayal that promoted the Party’s purposes.

As he is interrogated, Rubashov initially refuses to admit to the trumped-up charges. Afterwards, the two interrogators, Gletkin and Ivanov, discuss Rubashov’s fate. Ivanov, the more intellectual of the two, is basically humane and disturbed by the suffering he causes. Ivanov represents the original Party supporters. Gletkin represents the younger generation of the Party elite moving to take over from the older generation. He favors more ruthless means of torture such as sleep deprivation and doesn’t care how he gets the confession he needs to establish his own position.

Eventually Rubashov admits to the false charges. The novel ends with his execution.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown