"Poor Pym!" – Verne Meets Poe in Antarctica

Vincennes (color)

My current interest in Antarctica led me to finally read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Edgar Allan Poe, and its sequel An Antarctic Mystery, by Jules Verne.  (I am the biggest Vernian fangirl ever, so this duology sounded written for me.)  While in fairness I can only give Pym 3 stars and its sequel 3.5 stars, together they were definitely worth the read, if you’re into polar fiction, Poe, and/or Verne.
Pym is probably the least – or most? – Poe-like writing of his I’ve read.  Think “Treasure Island ends badly”…  Indeed, the plot starts out as a traditional sea story: boy runs away to sea, boy happened to pick a ship that was bound for adventure (or, in Poe fashion, terror).  The plot has a spontaneous quality to it, and when Arthur Pym eventually makes it to Antarctica, it seems rather like an accident or an aside.  You’ll find several classic Poe moments – aka spooky stuff – throughout the book, but not as many as fans might hope for.

I was a bit awed by Poe’s version of a sea story.  He seemed comfortable with the terminology; this may also be the first, pre-modern sea story I’ve read in which the author tries to educate the audience, or at least doesn’t assume they understand everything.  I really liked that aspect; it made me wish he had written more of this kind of thing.
Verne-Sphinx
On the other hand, I struggled with the characters, who seemed to be fluid in their roles – sometimes heroes, sometimes villains, yet without enough deliberation to make them true anti-heroes.  It seemed unrealistic. 

Jules Verne tried to remedy – well, everything!  I’m ever wary of translations, so I’m not sure how much one can safely say is Verne in An Antarctic Mystery.  I found a fascinating article which talks about this translation by Sarah Frances Hoey (warning: article contains major spoilers of Jules Verne novels)…it sounds like it’s not purist.  Taken as a whole, though, Verne’s book reads like a hearty fanfiction; he rose to the challenge of trying to mend the cliffhanger ending, while exploring the characters and their actions.  I can definitely read his style in it, so the translation can’t be that bad.  There is some racist language, which surprised me.  I don’t remember ever reading it in Verne before, which could be the translation or censorship by other translators.  I’d have to see the French, I guess, to know.

Plotwise and character-wise, I liked this sequel a bit more.  The sphinx part reminded me of that Ancient Aliens show, haha…  With the right screenwriter, these two books would make a great miniseries.

8 ♠ The Murders in the Rue Morgue

Another re-read and another Dupin – hurrah!

One of the many wonderful things about this Poe story is the beginning.  The narrator basically starts with a spiel on how checkers players have to be more analytical than chess players, since “the higher powers of the reflective intellect are more decidedly and more usefully tasked by the unostentatious game of draughts [checkers] than by the elaborate frivolity of chess.”  His words, not mine.  He argues that chess requires concentration, but checkers requires cleverness, as when, for example, a game of checkers results in four kings and one player wins.  I like this bit very much, since I’m good at checkers and absolutely dismal at chess.

The real story, of course, centers upon the meeting of C. Auguste Dupin and the narrator, as well as a gory murder case which occurs soon after.  It’s hard to believe I had forgotten the solution to the mystery; now it seems very memorable and one I’m not likely to forget again.  The detective work doesn’t seem very impressive compared to a Holmes story, and you might think it less than believable for an armchair detective (Dupin visits the scene of the crime, but the bulk of his work is done at home).  Once again, though, I’m left wishing there were more than three stories to this series!

In personality and profile, the similarities between Dupin and Holmes are extraordinary.  Both are implied to be born into the “landed gentry” or better, yet fallen upon hard financial and/or personal times.  Both are well educated eccentrics with an interest in crime-solving as a methodical science.  Both have a flare for the dramatic at unexpected moments.  The main differences I can see is that Dupin tends to rely heavily on intuition and probabilities, which Holmes might find to be shaky ground.  Holmes, too, is completely dedicated to his work and (at the beginning) tries very hard to further his career, while Dupin – perhaps having more to fall back upon – is content to leave it all as a hobby, just another puzzle to contemplate during his retreat from society.

I’d better stop there…

   “You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”
   Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

The only time Holmes seems like a fictional character is when he takes offense being compared to one.  Oops!

4 ♠ The Mystery of Marie Rogêt … A ♥ The Old Manse

Mystery of Marie RogetThe Mystery of Marie Rogêt is from the trio of C. Augustus Dupin mysteries by Edgar Allan Poe.  It is closely based on the real-life murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers, except the setting is Paris instead of New York City.  Marie Rogêt leaves her home one Sunday evening, purportedly to visit a relative, and she is not seen again until her body is found floating in the Seine.  The newspapers are full of speculation regarding the mystery, but Dupin’s only concern is to reconcile the known facts with each other and, slightly different than his British counterpart, to eliminate the unlikely.

I remember when I first read this story, years ago, and found it to be pretty bland.  It is more of a commentary than a story.  The one thing that stood out to me this time was the brutality of the crime, much worse than the average Holmes story, but more true to life in that it was based on real life.  I think we tend to have a rose-colored perspective of the 19th century, but really it was profuse with some of the same issues, and the same barbarity of crimes, that exist today.

Despite the slow pace of the Dupin stories, I do wish Poe had written a full-blown detective series, just like I wish Melville had written more Royal Navy stories.  Then perhaps there would be more of these humorous random moments:

…the Prefect broke forth at once into explanations of his own views, interspersing them with long comments upon the evidence; of which latter we were not yet in possession. He discoursed much, and beyond doubt, learnedly; while I hazarded an occasional suggestion as the night wore drowsily away. Dupin, sitting steadily in his accustomed arm-chair, was the embodiment of respectful attention. He wore spectacles, during the whole interview; and an occasional signal glance beneath their green glasses, sufficed to convince me that he slept not the less soundly, because silently, throughout the seven or eight leaden-footed hours which immediately preceded the departure of the Prefect.

Detroit Photographic Company (0389)

It’s early days, but so far The Old Manse by Hawthorne is my favorite from the Deal Me In challenge.  I can’t really explain it, but I feel a very strong connection to Hawthorne’s writing.  Even when he is just writing about the old house he lived in, for a short time, there is something so personal and profound in the way he makes the whole place become real to you and impresses you with its quiet significance.

He talks about Emerson, whose family lived in the house for decades before Hawthorne.  He describes a vignette from the Revolutionary War which he supposes could have taken place within view of the Old Manse.  Hawthorne takes you down the river on a fishing excursion, and you walk with him through his bountiful orchard in the autumn, and watch his garden grow in the spring.

We were so free to-day that it was impossible to be slaves again to-morrow. When we crossed the threshold of the house or trod the thronged pavements of a city, still the leaves of the trees that overhang the Assabeth were whispering to us, “Be free! be free!”

Eventually, Hawthorne’s life took him him back to the city, away from the Old Manse, to earn his livelihood working at a customs house.  There is always this call in his stories to keep these beautiful places in your head, pure moments that live in your memory and which even time can’t undo.  A very Romantic notion…but something quite uplifting, even practical, for day-to-day life.

Monstrous Societies

I haven’t purposely adhered to the current “dystopian novel” trend, yet my three latest reads have all held striking elements of it.

First is the famous Utopia, a complete contradiction to its name.  This was a really bad book, to put it simply.  The fictitious island of Utopia is a society of Mary Sues, where everyone is so good and kind and noble-hearted.  It made me sick.  Not because I don’t like nice people, but because these are phony, utterly unrealistic nice people.  Plus, they’re not as nice as they look.  They think slavery and arranged families and shared houses are ok–well, not only ok, but just splendid.  The more I read, the more I noticed another disturbing trend: elderly guys are at the top, women and children (and slaves) are at the bottom.  Gerontocracy, I think.  Religion in Utopia is a bona fide mixing of faiths where everyone worships at the same church, and if your beliefs extend beyond a “one size fits all” worship service, you have to complete your worship at home.  The tip of the iceberg was the part where the women and children must fall on their knees before their patriarch and confess their sins to him, before going to church.  (And he is always the saintly member of the family, I suppose?)  This is just a sample of Utopian joys.  By the end of the book, it really was like a bad dream.

To quote Wikipedia, there is a lot in this book that seems “to be polar opposites of More’s beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic Church of which he was a devout member.”  Some reviewers of Utopia say you must read it as a joke; I would at least label it as such, but at this point in history the humor is gone, and there is little in the book as a whole that leads me to think it isn’t serious.  It gets a generous 1 out of 5 stars.

Moving on to Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise.  This book zeros-in on a segment of Parisian society in the late 1800s, chiefly greed-driven businessmen like Octave Mouret, owner of the Ladies’ Paradise, and a number of his employees and customers whose lives are also governed by their materialism.  As if this form of self-indulgence weren’t enough, many of them are also obsessed with sex or using it to obtain quick fortunes.  Mouret is a nasty pervert.  Madame Marty also makes me furious with her addiction to spending, which forced her husband to get an extra job.  I will be so glad to get away from this group of characters (only four chapters left!).  The only character I particularly like is Monsieur Baudu, a small-business owner and the uncle of the heroine (Denise Baudu).  He’s not perfect, but he seems to recognize some fundamental values (like family life) that other people avoid.

The third lovely society I stumbled across is Edgar Allan Poe’s The City in the Sea,” read by Basil Rathbone.  Perhaps those other two books made me understand this poem, which depicts the ruin of a (apparently) corrupt city.  It is rather depressing, but the poetry is magnificent, and so is Rathbone’s recording of it.  It increases my eagerness to re-read Poe’s poetry, too.