Summer Novels

Books have their seasons. My last really big stint of fiction-reading was in late college when I went though works of Hardy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Turgenev and London. Certainly I had more time for it then. At any rate, I’ve returned to some of those authors again—there’s a new edition of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment on my shelf.

I re-read The Sea Wolf, an old favorite, though I admit to skimming the last part. The romance that develops is quite noble but gratuitous. It’s a distraction from the battle of nerves between Humphrey Van Weyden and Wolf Larsen and the fascinatingly grim universe of the sailors and seal-hunters. London was a great writer. In the Sea Wolf he is not yet committed to the strident materialism and Darwinism he would espouse later. He still seems to be struggling with the need for morals in an apparently arbitrary universe. Depicting the battle between the upright Johnson and the atavistic Larsen, the narrator tells us:

The sailor Johnson was swayed by idea, by principle, and truth, and sincerity. He was right, he knew he was right, and he was unafraid. He would die for the right if needs be, he would be true to himself, sincere with his soul. And in this was portrayed the victory of the spirit over the flesh, the indomitability and moral grandeur of the soul that knows no restriction and rises above time and space and matter with a surety and invincibleness born of nothing else than eternity and immortality.

In the end London’s tentative agnosticism would lose out to his arrogant nihilism. I remember with regret his semi-autobiographical Martin Eden. It was one of the most enjoyable, page-turning novels of human interest which I’d ever come across, but it completely fell apart at the end. I don’t think I’m spoiling it by saying the main character commits suicide in a mood of bored despair. The conclusion infuriated me as both a moral and artistic cop-out.

A lesser-known novelist I’ve dedicated myself to in recent years is Maurice Baring. His book Daphne Adeane is different from the plot of his other stories, which deal with gentle anti-heroes. They are usually victims of unrequited love, perhaps reflecting the fact that Baring was a lifelong bachelor. His novels are highly autobiographical. Anyone who’s read his memoir Puppet Show of Memory will recognize the same themes and incidents repeated in his fiction. But Daphne Adeane is unusual in that the main character is a woman. It is also interesting to compare Baring with Thomas Hardy. I don’t think I could go back to Hardy’s fatalistic romanticism. There is a bit of that in Baring’s stories as well, yet Baring’s novels rise above self-absorbed pagan despair through their sense of Christian hope, which is all the more powerful for being understated.

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