Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: King, Süskind, and London

Hello! Happy 2022! I hope that you are all enjoying your holiday season with many books and much good health. If there’s snow near you, I also hope that you are staying warm and safe.

Last time, I reviewed several not-so-uplifting books. This time, I’ll kick 2022 off with one book that’s slightly more inspiring…

Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King

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“I asked him once what the posters meant to him, and he gave me a peculiar, surprised sort of look. ‘Why, they mean the same thing to me as they do to most cons, I guess,’ he said. ‘Freedom. You look at those pretty women and you feel like you could almost …not quite but almost …step right through and be beside them. Be free.”

This was the first Stephen King book I ever read, and it was good. It wasn’t as amazing as I thought it would be, though, considering all the hype. Maybe it’s because I already saw the movie and knew the ending.

For the first time in my life, I’d actually say that the movie was somewhat better than the book, because it emphasized some important through-lines more and made better choices than the book about certain side-characters. Also, the book was less of an experience and more of a mystery—once you knew its solution, there wasn’t much left to experience in the book.

Meanwhile, the movie was more of an experience (since film is basically about experiencing things by watching them on-screen). So even knowing the solution to the mystery didn’t take away from the glory of reliving that experience.

In any case, I enjoyed this book. It was definitely well-written, and I hope that there are other Stephen King books out there that I can read in the future that are just as good, if not better. Do you have any recommendations?

Perfume, by Patrick Süskind, Translated by John E. Woods

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[A long quote but worth it!] “And [Father Terrier] rocked the basket gently on his knees, stroking the infant’s head with his finger and repeating ‘poohpeedooh’ from time to time, an expression he thought had a gentle, soothing effect on small children [….] Terrier wrenched himself to his feet and set the basket on the table. He wanted to get rid of the thing, as quickly as possible, right away if possible, immediately if possible. And then it began to wail. It squinted up its eyes, gaped its gullet wide, and gave a screech so repulsively shrill that the blood in Terrier’s veins congealed. He shook the basket with an outstretched hand and shouted ‘Poohpeedooh’ to silence the child, but it only bellowed more loudly and turned completely blue in the face and looked as if it would burst from bellowing.”

This book is about a kid who has a wonderful sense of smell but doesn’t smell of anything himself. Oh yeah, and he’s a murderer.

Given that I first heard of this book on an International Baccalaureate reading list, I thought it would be kind of stuffy and literary. To my great surprise and delight, it was actually very funny (while also being literary).

The author clearly enjoyed writing this book, in the way Tolstoy clearly enjoyed writing War and Peace. When the writer really likes what he or she is writing about, it comes across to the reader and makes the reading experience so much fun. These kinds of books are so much better than books where the author’s clearly just trying to come across as witty or sophisticated without deeply caring about what he or she is writing about.

Anyway, the unexpected humor, great plotting, strong characterization, and amazing twist (the book feels almost like speculative fiction at certain points) makes Perfume a super-recommendable book.

Martin Eden, by Jack London

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“It was the finest thing yet that [Martin Eden] had seen in this small glimpse of that [upper-class] world. He was moved deeply by appreciation of it, and his heart was melting with sympathetic tenderness. He had starved for love all his life. His nature craved love. It was an organic demand of his being. Yet he had gone without, and hardened himself in the process. He had not known that he needed love. Nor did he know it now. He merely saw it in operation, and thrilled to it, and thought it fine, and high, and splendid.”

If you’ve been following this blog for a long time, you may remember that I listed London’s autobiographical novel Martin Eden as an “honorable mention” in my Top Ten Books I Read in High School post. I reread it recently for a paper I had to write. It was so good.

Martin Eden is about a sailor named Russ Brissenden Martin Eden (!) who meets a high-society girl named Ruth, and falls in love with her. But he needs to have a steady career in order to get her parents to agree for them to get married. So, like all practical men seeking a steady career, Martin decides that he will become a famous writer. Poverty ensues, but love endures (or does it?)

Cheesy summary aside, I didn’t realize how good this book was until I actually analyzed it. See, Jack London seemed to think that his protagonist was driven by consistent selfish individualism, and that’s easy enough to accept when you read the book once and don’t think too hard (or at all) about it.

However, when reading the book closely, it became obvious that Martin was just driven by his need for love (I could go on and on about this, but basically his need for love was a much more consistent and clear motive for Martin’s actions than any kind of individualism). If Martin’s need for love was such a clear motive (in contrast to all those times Martin explicitly told himself he was a poor excuse for an individualist), why did London still insist that his book was about Martin’s individualism?

Keeping in mind that I could also be wrong, we could go on to speculate that deep down, London knew the book’s dominant through-line wasn’t individualism, but that he insisted otherwise to cover up insecurities or other things he didn’t want to admit (imagine a tough guy like London saying his latest book was about craving love).

Anyway. For a guy who might have been lying to himself, London still had the guts to make this a consistent thread throughout his story, even if in the end he underemphasized that thread and tried to hide it beneath unconvincing thematic stuff about individualism. And even in spite of all the stuff about individualism, London’s book still possessed remarkable insight due to that partially-smothered thread. That’s what made the book so good, in my view.

So if you’re a writer, it might be a good idea to really know why you write, and if you’re a reader, it might be an interesting idea to reread some old favorites.

If you just want to know if I would recommend this book, I definitely would, and I’d be curious to hear any thoughts you might have about it.

 Also, if you want to listen to a great Bill Hughes song about Martin Eden…

Happy New Year!