Master of the World (Verne)
This late and hasty story suffers from a number of defects: stiff, lifeless diction, a sudden unmotivated denouement, the inclusion of odd geographical data, and a pronounced tendency toward repetition that makes the reader suspect the author was paid by the word. A sequel to Robur the Conqueror in which the antagonist had been better-intentioned, the would-be Master of the World appears here as a standard mad scientist, threatening somehow that he can enslave the world with his combo car-boat-submarine-airplane constructed on his remote island. A faint foreshadowing of the fear of insane authority Kracauer saw in Caligari does little to animate the character.
At the conclusion, the hero is a captive of Robur, sailing aloft in his marvelous machine when suddenly, in an event altogether without prior trace or present significance, the craft crashes, the villain dies, and Inspector Brock (of the American “national police”) is cast unconscious into the sea from which his “helpless body” is rescued.
Incidentally the story has some quaint aspects perhaps worth mentioning. Though written the year after the Wright brothers’ actual flight at Kitty Hawk, Verne imagines an airship with wings that beat like a bird’s. The book is set in the United States motivating side comments by Verne confirming the American scene such as the sighting of possums and plenty of gamblers.
This one I will not include even among the titles I mean to read to my granddaughter.
The Poetry and Career of Li Po (Waley)
The poet (whose name is also transliterated as Li Bai and Li Bo or Ri Haku from the Japanese form) has proven the most popular Chinese poet in the West, perhaps the only one generally educated people could have named fifty years ago. His reputation is certainly due in part to the accessibility of his extravagant romanticism, his celebrations of drinking, and his general Bohemianism. Yet Waley’s book, which was published in 1950, may also have played a role at a time when Li Po could strike the common reader as something of an Asian Dylan Thomas.
Waley’s book includes a good many first-rate translations of the sort one expects from the mn who did more than any other individual to spread knowledge of East Asian culture in Europe and the United States. (How important to me were his Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, his version of the Tao Te Ching (Dàodéjīng), his Monkey!) He also tells the poet’s story well, in a way that is wholly understandable to those who know little of Chinese literature and history while including sufficient references to indicate his own scholarly responsibility. The book is a delight and an entertainment.
And just as Waley was a magnificent popularizer in the best sense, the series in which the book appeared from George Allen & Unwin, the Ethical and Religious Classics of East and West, represents a cosmopolitan faith in culture and truly liberal education almost lost today. The series, “which originated among a group of Oxford men and their friends,” following the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, sought to encourage “a deeper understanding and appreciation of other peoples and their civilizations.” They aimed their series specifically at “the ex-Service man who is interested in the East, the undergraduate, the adult student, the intelligent public generally.” Yet the works are all by experts, Archer on Krishna, Arberry on Sufism, Conze on Buddhism. These writers delivered the real thing, no condescending simplification, no New Age mush, but the wholesome nourishment of some of the most sublime thinking our species has attained.
Seraph on the Suwanee (Hurston)
Zora Neale Hurston would likely have been annoyed though not surprised that the first thing everyone must say about Seraph on the Suwanee is that it centers on white people. Hurston was notoriously dismissive of racial politics – a Republican, she opposed integration and even Roosevelt’s New Deal – in in this book race seems to matter little. The increasingly affluent Jim Meserve seems to wholly accept personal and working relations with a black family, and his son becomes a jazz musician who plays in such a way that he says “you could almost think it was colored folks playing that music.” The society of the shrimpers with whom he works likewise seems strangely egalitarian for the period. Most powerfully, the tensions of the plot are entirely unrelated to issues of race, and the language used by Arvay and others, while looking quite authentic (she was of course a trained anthropologist) is virtually identical, word for word in some cases, with the vernacular used by her black characters.
Hurston also goes against the grain on gender issues. Though her Their Eyes Were Watching God readily accepts a simple feminist reading, Seraph on the Suwanee ends with its heroine apparently finding peace and fulfilment by accepting the absolute authority of her husband. In fact Arvay is so agonized by anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness that she is an unlikely candidate for a resolute action heroine.
The book is beautifully written, the colloquial dialect alone makes the volume worth reading. Powerful image systems at work as well.