I inadvertently picked up three novels that have a lot to say about authorship, narration, and the nature of reality as pertains to stories and storytelling.
This novel is a small mystery (but a 500 page novel) about a maybe cursed diamond that was (definitely first stolen from an Indian village in British colonial India in the 1840s and then) maybe stolen from its “rightful” heir, Rachel, who was passed down the Moonstone by a hated and derided uncle who either was trying to win back the regard of the family or maybe wanted to curse them.
The diamond goes missing, Rachel falls sullen, and her would-be but now castoff beau pays all the concerned parties to testify in order to solve the mystery. The novel is split into several several of this series of testimonies and affidavits. The first is the butler of the Lady of the house, Rachel’s aunt. Then we have her religious cousin, then the jilted lover, then the detective, and finally a disgraced doctor’s assistant. All of which adds up to a mystery that remains small, but gets deliciously and absurdly melodramatic. Hope you like weird Victorian pseudoscience!
The novel’s themes along with its form relate to the idea of subjective versus objective reality. Who can tell a story in honesty, and whether or not that colors, affects, changes, or misconstrues that reality. So each narrator minus one perhaps, is colored by a clear limitation on their ability to provide accurate testimony. This novel is an early mystery and certainly early in playing around with narrative the way it does.
This is the book I have likely read the most in my adult life. I first read it in high school, was assigned it several times in college, and have taught it a few times. This is the first time I listened to an audiobook version and it definitely changed up what I knew about it because now I had readers taking on very familiar phrases for me and coloring them in different ways.
If you haven’t read it, it’s the story of Addie Bundren, wife….mother…good baker…, wanting to die and dying. She had asked her husband Anse to bury her in Jackson some 10-20 miles away. This request opens up a lot of opportunities for Anse and their children all of whom have various ulterior motives that are driving them. This book is told in 42 chapters and narrated by 15 different characters some of whom play pivotal roles in the story and some who don’t and all of whom bring their particular limitations, prejudices, and personal focuses to bear on the story. Like the Moonstone, this one also deals with those questions of who is able to tell stories, whose narration meets up with notions of subjective versus objective reality, and who is in a position to be believed.
When I first read it in high school I found it really funny and comically ridiculous. Now I don’t know that any part of it makes me laugh so much anymore, and more of makes me sad. But there are still a few moments throughout that are so deliciously callous and cruel and audacious, that it’s still a pleasurable experience. This is not the most accessible Faulkner, but it’s not his least either. The prose is generally straightforward, but as you work your way through a couple of the convoluted inner workings of the minds, you do realize that the “simplest” of the characters don’t always have the actual language to express their way of seeing the world. So rather than simple, it becomes needlessly fraught and complex.
The title of this book really means “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” which means, Himmler’s Brian is called Heydrich, and this novel is ostensibly about the rise of Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust as well as various other horribleness in the third reich. This novel focuses specifically on the assassination of Heydrich which is known as Operation Anthropoid, which if you have Netflix or Amazon, I forget which, you can a movie based on it floating around. Maybe it feels weird to mention the movie floating around, but the way Binet writes this novel is of a very very involved narrator who is the author (though of course possibly fictionalized) actively researching the contents of the book and deciding on which information to provide the reader and even sometimes forgetting something and adding it later or misremembering something and fixing it after the fact. And even in presenting the novel as he does, he spends the first 100 pages on the novel just introducing the character of Heydrich and showing his importance to Hitler before even getting into the people involved in the assassination, a choice that he justifies through a sense of not yet knowing who they are and what they’re about. And part of this stems from Heydrich’s own ability to control the narrative. It’s a kind of funny book at times, along with being horrifying, because Binet’s decisions about the text as he’s narrating his writing involves the questions of authorship and narration about how he’s affected as a writer by movies and books that distill military and political lives in fiction and even spends awhile looking at the HBO movie about Heydrich “Conspiracy.” All this amounts to learning a lot about Heydrich, not exactly reading a novel about him, but definitely reading a novel about novels.
Three Men in a Boat….to Say Nothing about the Dog – Jerome K Jerome 3/5
This is a bizarre little book. It was written in 1889, which is also a kind of weird time in literature. The late 1800s is not the most clearly defined period of English literature. It’s also bizarre because I listened to an audiobook version of this and I bet this would make for a really good annotated edition. It’s like reading Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday with no notes and never really looking up what’s going on. This book FEELS like it had a lot going on behind the scenes and a lot of references and allusions that weren’t landing for me, not because they didn’t land, but because I didn’t get them.
That said, it’s a pretty funny book that’s super weird, like I said. In the beginning the narrator tells us that he has every illness under the sun and is looking for a kind of cureall experience for him and his two friends. After a detailed debate they decide that a short trip down the Thames (keeping in mind this is at the culmination of the industrial revolution). Most of the book then follows along their ill-fated journey with various digressions of memory and flashback that leads back to their journey. There’s a lot of opining. There’s lots of hijinks. There’s lots of mishaps, and of course there’s the real possibility of falling in.
I DON’T I am going to read the sequel, but I appreciate knowing the reference for Connie Willis’s novel. So anyway.