Of all of the classes of books that at one time or another have been considered to belong to the realm of Literature, those volumes constituted primarily of tales of a fantastic nature would appear to suffered the steepest decline in esteem by contemporary readers. This seems almost counterintuitive, given the current immense popularity of modern stories featuring fantasy and magic among all ages and classes of readers; it is evident however that the writing ,and the mindsets of the protagonists and the problems to be overcome in the new stories, despite their superficial resemblances to the older stories featuring knights and ladies and enchantments, have been updated to appeal to modern sensibilities such that they possess a vividness to the present generation of readers that the romantic stories of Scott and Boccaccio and their ilk do not.
Washington Irving's Alhambra is primarily a book of legends and tales of this romantic sort--that is what it is remembered for, to the extent that it is remembered--though it also partakes of the genres of travelogue and I suppose some light history. I found it a wonderful book, at this particular time of my life anyway, found Washington Irving, whom I had never read before, to be a much more interesting writer than his current stature suggested to me he would be, and found my already fervent (for me) desire to go wandering around Spain re-confirmed and further whetted by the perhaps unrealistically romantic but unabashedly good-natured affection with which the author (infects) his account. The IWE introduction states, with characteristic candor, that the book is a "typical work of North America's first man of letters--good writing but seldom superlative." I suppose this is accurate, but I do want to note that I was struck, more than I usually am, perhaps because the writing was 'seldom superlative' by what a good command Irving had of the language. It is a vigorous kind of writing, always clear and precise in spite of some 19th century tendencies towards effusiveness and hyperbole, and also frequently humorous. I will give a couple of examples from "The Legend of the Moor's Legacy":
""Honest Peregil thus saw himself unexpectedly saddled with an infidel guest, but he was too humane to refuse a night's shelter to a fellow-being in so forlorn a plight."
"Now it so happened that this Alcalde was one of the most overbearing, and at the same time one of the most griping and corrupt curmudgeons in all Granada. It could not be denied, however, that he set a high value upon justice, for he sold it at its weight in gold."
"As ill-luck would have it, there lived opposite to the water-carrier a barber named Pedrillo Pedrugo, one of the most prying, tattling, and mischief-making of his gossip tribe. He was a weasel-faced, spider-legged varlet, supple and insinuating; the famous barber of Seville could not surpass him for universal knowledge of the affairs of others."
My edition is from 1926. It belongs to the 'Academy Classics for Junior High Schools' series, pocket-sized little volumes with nice thick paper, a large number of photographs of the Alhambra and various sites associated with Washington Irving, and about fifty of footnotes, biography, study questions and other supplemental information. The footnotes and appendices of course are unabashedly Eurocentric. (Some favorite footnotes: Allah: God; plains of Tours: Near Tours, in France, in 732, Charles Martel defeated the Mohammedans and thereby saved Europe; Henry III: King of Castile, 1390-1406. He was called "The Weak," because he was by no means inclined to wage war against the Moors.") The editors in their comments about the Moors betray attitudes and thought processes that will properly draw frowns from unignorant moderns, though they are trying, after their paternalistic fashion, to be complimentary:
"(The) Moors, he (Irving) learned, were Caucasians like himself, with the fine strong features of the white race, and of a handsome, dignified, noble appearance. Since they had descended from generations of people who had lived in the hot sun of the desert regions, they had dark-brown complexion, dark eyes, and intensely black hair...They established colleges; encouraged literature, art, and science; the development of mathematics and of medicine, of astronomy and physics, as well as the study of history and geography; and they did wonderful work in the making of silken cloth and of steel. In many ways these dark-faced people benefited Spain, setting slaves free; relieving the oppressed; reducing taxation, and giving wide freedom. They did so much that was remarkable that they thought of themselves as leaders of men, and made all people respect their culture and their intellectual ability."
Irving's own comments on the Moors, it should be noted, had somewhat less of this overt racial condescension. As even the editors of this edition discerned, "Irving wrote about the Moors with enthusiasm because he thought them a great people.":
"As conquerors, their heroism was only equalled by their moderation; and in both, for a time, they excelled the nations with whom they contended."
"The Arab invasion and conquest brought a higher civilization, and a nobler style of thinking, into Gothic Spain. The Arabs were a quick-witted, sagacious, proud-spirited, and poetic people, and were imbued with oriental science and literature."
Washington Irving seems to have led all in all a pretty swell life. Certainly that is the impression given in the biographical sketch of him in my 1926 schoolboy edition, which would have left out all references to the sorts of petty unpleasantnesses with which any life is filled and which tend I think to be overemphasized in modern biography. It did mention that Irving was engaged to be married when he was twenty-six, and that his fiancee died before the wedding. It does not seem that he ever married anyone else, and of course there were no allusions to any kind of illicit romances in the schoolboy book (Wikipedia says that when he was forty, and already long a successful author, he proposed to an eighteen year old who turned him down; it also asserts that Mary Shelley, who was 14 years younger than Irving herself, expressed, through a third party, romantic interest in him, but Irving did not pursue the relationship). He was born in New York in 1783, a great time and place to have done so, certainly by the standards of history up to that point, and acknowledging the favorable circumstances of race, gender, social position, etc that he possessed. For the free Americans my impression, which seems to be corroborated by statistics with regard to things like average height, birth and death rates, etc, those first decades of nationhood after the revolution were a pretty heady time to grow up, full of confidence and purpose, again by comparison to almost any other time and place in history. By his 20s Irving had become the first person in the history of his nation to be recognized primarily as a litterateur in the European tradition. He lived in and traveled all over Europe for seventeen years, including his three month sojourn inside the Alhambra. After the success of that book, he was awarded the post of United States Ambassador to Spain by president Tyler, though he seems to have accepted the post reluctantly. He lived out his middle and old age in his beautiful mansion (which can still be visited, by the way) along the Hudson, reading, writing more books, meandering around the Catskills and heading down to the City when the mood struck him. He died in 1859, just in time to miss the next great national cataclysm, fittingly it seems to me, as he belongs so thoroughly to the epoch of our history that was exploded when the Civil War happened, though perhaps he would have been interested to see it. Really, his life was kind of my ideal, apart from his never having married or any children (which I have to assume he could have afforded and paid/directed someone else to take care of while he wrote and traveled.)
The making of books had attained a very high level by the 1920s. This copy I have is in excellent condition, sturdy, has great paper, no typos or other printing errors, easily readable print, is attractively designed. It's great.
The Bourgeois Surrender Challenge
I read the winner from the last challenge, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, which came out in 2001, and seems to have been pretty well acclaimed. I suppose it has some qualities of professional literary authorship about it, but overall it doesn't quite achieve anything that that status would suggest. First of all, the book is only 318 pages, but it seems like it goes on forever, which is not a great sign. Secondly, while she does not affect it, the author seeps with a kind of bourgeois snobbery that is not yet wholly earned enough to be tolerable in artistic pursuits. Her characters are too much what she imagines people of their distinction and achievement must be like, and not enough what she knows of the same. I assume Roxane Cox, the opera singing diva from Chicago who possesses an understanding of and intimacy with the higher things of life that are beyond that of almost everyone who has ever lived, is supposed, even if subconsciously, to be a stand-in for our author, which is a identification that the author has not earned, and does not earn by way of a convincing demonstration of the character. The book is most interesting perhaps as a window into the ego of the modern American woman. Roxane Cox, whom I take to be the author's alter ego, is an American from a middle class midwestern Catholic school who somehow has developed into the world's greatest opera singer. She is flown in at exorbitant expense to an unidentified godforsaken country in South America to sing for the CEO of one of the most important corporations in Japan because he loves opera, she is his favorite singer, and the government of the godforsaken country is desperate for him to build a factory or otherwise invest some dough there. During the concert terrorists, expecting the president of the country to be there, burst into the palace and take the assembled international crowd of extremely rich, cultured and important guests hostage. After a couple of days all of the women and unimportant men are allowed to leave, except somehow Roxane is not set free. She is thus the lone woman imprisoned in the among forty or so mostly alpha men, none of whom it should be noted, are Americans--they wouldn't be interesting enough. All of the men fall in love with her, especially after she begins to sing for them all every day. She picks the one she wants out of the bunch, the great Japanese CEO as it turns out, to be her lover during the captivity under the terrorists (don't ask), and the other men--even the Russians!--tamely accept this decision. Of course we are all entitled to our personal fantasy worlds, but at least recognize them when they are delineated so blatantly.
Anyway, onto this week's challenge. I thought with all of the Spanish and Alhambra material producing the magic words that we would have an interesting and high octane contest, but it turned out to be nothing of the sort.
1. Civilization: The West and the Rest--Niall Ferguson.....................................................226
2. Sister Queens--Julia Fox.................................................................................................135
3. Le Freak: An Upside Down History of Family, Disco & Destiny-- Nile Rodgers.........113
4. Enchantments--Kathryn Harrison.....................................................................................99
5. Codex Magica--Texe Marrs..............................................................................................83
6. At Hidden Falls--Barbara Freethy.....................................................................................40
7. The Damascus Cover--Howard Kaplan............................................................................26
8. The Economist Style Guide.................................................................................................7
9. Advanced Language Practice With Key--Michael Vince...................................................2
Lot of zero-scorers this time, mainly among older books: The Dementia of Iyan Igma; A.J. Calvert, Southern Spain (This was actually listed among the recommended supplemental reading in my copy of the Alhambra); Mary F. Nixon-Roulet, Our Little Spanish Cousin; Eyewitness Travel: New York City 2011; Joan Ouellet, The Captive Dove; Happy Days For Boys & Girls; and W.A. Leahy, The Incendiary.
I am glad that the Niall Ferguson book was the winner, because that is the sort of popular non-fiction book that I like to read and have not always taken the time to fit in. Ferguson is, or was a few years ago at least, on the way becoming the new Christopher Hitchens/Andrew Sullivan British expat political and economic commentator for that portion of the educated set that is especially blown away by Oxbridge polish and erudition. I have started his book, and it is entertaining and has some interesting information in it, particularly about medieval era China, though Ferguson is the type of writer who is very emphatic that he is giving us the truth and the assertions of previous authors and sometimes even positions that were widely held among the most prominent scholars in a field for decades were completely off the mark. This kind of thing leads me to suspect that he is oversimplifying the ideas and thought processes that prevailed formerly. However, as I said, I am still enjoying the book.
The Alhambra words produced a very weird movie challenge:
1. Silver Streak......................196
2. Body by Bethenny..............177
3. God's Pocket........................20
Yes, the winner is the 1976 Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor collaboration, and the close runner up is the exercise tape of a divorced reality television personality who is about my age, and unfortunately seems to be a pretty typical specimen of the kinds of women I had to spend my adolescence unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to gain the approval of because they seemed to be the predominant type that was around.