Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

This is perhaps the most autobiographical account Dostoyevsky gives us of his four-year prison sentence in a remote Siberian labor camp. Although he condenses and shapes the sentence for literary reasons (much like Thoreau condensed his two-year experiment on Walden Pond to one year for metaphorical reasons), Dostoyevsky nevertheless offers a harrowing exploration of how prison life affects the psychological make-up of the prisoner.

Using the frame story of a found manuscript, the story proper is written from the first-person POV of Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a member of the Russian upper class who must submit to the same prison conditions as his more common countrymen. Drawn directly from Dostoyevsky's own experiences, we meet Aleksandr's fellow prisoners as they drink, fight, celebrate the holidays, etc. More importantly, we witness changes in Aleksandr's world vision as a result of his imprisonment.

It doesn't really follow a narrative structure, reading more like an episodic series of sketches of prison life over the course of a year. What's pretty cool about the book, however, is the glimpse it offers of early Dostoyevsky trying to work within the tableau of psychological examination. For anyone who has read Crime and Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov, The House of the Dead is like a series of practice exercises of something which Dostoyevsky will later prove a master: the psychological study of the criminal mind.

Overall, a pretty cool read.

Friday, August 08, 2008

William Shakespeare, Othello

This was a re-read for me. I first read it back in college, and I seem to recall even writing a paper about it ... in heroic couplets, no less. Then I read it at the end of this past school year (in May), and now just re-read it. In my A.P. English class, I'm trying to swap out King Lear, which has been a standard of my summer reading assignment, and figured Othello is a logical alternative.

Considering that Othello is held as one of Shakespeare's "four great tragedies," I was immediately struck by how ... well ... earthly it is. While Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth all address very cosmic connections between man's physicality and his spirituality, Othello is surprisingly fleshly. Now, that doesn't make it any less powerful of a play ... but I find that aspect of it interesting, considering the company it keeps.

Iago is, of course, a deliciously evil character, and I look forward to exploring the connections between Iago and Milton's Satan with my students this semester. There are some wonderfully manipulative conversations that take place with both characters, and I suspect such a comparison will make for fruitful analysis. Desdemona evokes a certain eroticism that is not conveyed in the other three "greats," and Othello himself is a bit of a dupe ... not quite the dupe Macbeth is, but that's a different story altogether.

Good play. I'm glad I read it ... again.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell

When told that I had recently finished reading The Watchmen, a close friend recommended that I check out Moore's From Hell. I did ... and must say that this is definitely one of the cooler books I've read so far this year!

From Hell (on which the Johnny Depp film was based a few years ago) is a retelling of the Jack the Ripper case that confounded London police in the late 1880s. Using as his starting point a conspiracy theory put forth by one Stephen Knight, Moore examines how the seemingly random Ripper victims were in fact a small group of Victorian-era prostitutes who were planning to blackmail English royalty because one of their own gave birth to an illegitimate daughter sired by Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence. To avoid embarrassment to the Crown as a result of this birth, Queen Victoria herself commissions her royal physician, Dr. William Gull, to locate and institutionalize the working-class mother of the child. But we learn that Gull is likewise a sociopath who takes it upon himself to "remove" the whole handful of blackmailing prostitutes in the name of Freemason ideology. Hence, "Jack the Ripper" is in essence (according to Knight and Moore) a direct result of a cover-up by the English monarchy.

Reading this was almost like reading a Pynchon novel. The research that Moore did is evident in the story's intricate detailing of period crime solving techniques, Freemasonry lore, historical documentation, geographical history, yet sprinkled with allusions to Karl Marx and William Blake and Buffalo Bill, and including cameos by such Victorian luminaries as John "The Elephant Man" Merrick, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, and even a young Aleister Crowley! And Campbell, working primarily in inkwash and crosshatch shading, beautifully renders in black and white the starkness of 19th Century England. It's a visual treat!

And herein lies part of what I find fascinating about reading this novel in particular, and graphic novels in general. Visual treat aside, it's a visual medium much like a film in that the artist, like a filmmaker, selects what the reader/viewer can and cannot see. But more importantly, the other aspect of that "editing" process -- the pace of the material -- is out of the artist's control and must be trusted to the reader himself. So while film forces the viewer to see what the filmmaker wants you to see, and for how long you will see it, the act of "reading" the panels of a graphic novel must rely on the pacing of the reader/viewer. For this reason I found Chapter Ten, "The Best of All Tailors," a great example of how the art must in fact allow for the individual reader's pacing to sustain the suspense and impact of the scene. (But hey, I'm a novice at this graphic novel stuff and I assume this "pacing" idea is old news to afficionados.)

Anyways, it's a great read. If graphic novels are your thing, I highly recommend it!