July 26th, 2010


July Books 16) Faust, by Goethe

It really took me ages to grind through this, and I'm not sure that it was worth it. Rather ambitiously I got hold of the Wordsworth edition which includes not only Part I and Part II of Faust, but also an earlier draft of Part I (the Urfaust) just in case you are sufficiently interested to know what the original version might have looked like.

Part I is the more digestible version (and the Urfaust even more so). Heinrich Faust, a scholar who is trying to reconcile the life of the mind with the lusts of the flesh, signs a deal with Mephistopheles (who9 first appears, and I am not making this up, in the shape of a poodle) to get whatever he wants, notably the pretty girl Gretchen. There are various rustic and studenty comic interludes, but it all goes wrong and she is executed for infanticide (I think; it's a bit obscure).

Part II, in five tedious acts, is more a pageant of Goethe's knowledge (and adaptation) of German and classical mythology than anything resembling an actual plot. Faust sets up a kingdom which seems to be co-located between medieval Germany and ancient Greece in order to seduce Helen of Troy (after the end of the Trojan war). There are complicated bits with emperors battling each other (one of whom may be Napoleon, who was around at the time of composition) and I really didn't follow much of it.

I think that either part would be pretty much impossible to stage. The characters do very little but wander up and down declaiming verse, and some of the directions are surely unimplementable (the well-trained poodle, as noted above; various stunts required in Part II). I assume that Goethe wrote it for intellectual house parties to recite to each other while lounging around the formal gardens sipping white wine.

Despite the fact that I really didn't enjoy Faust much, I did have some fun spotting themes that have carried through to later literature. Quite a lot of Part I reminded me of Buffy, with the students, young lurve, supernatural powers and diabolical figures tempting our lead character. That may be my imagination; I'm quite sure, however, that Roger Zelazny drew on Faust's construction of his magical castle to seduce Helen when writing the latter part of Jack of Shadows - he was a fan of German literature.

I suppose I should read (or, better, somehow watch) the Marlowe version to get another perspective on the story. (And then reread Michael Swanwick's take on it.)

July Books 17) The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

I had almost no expectations or knowledge of this book before I opened it; my only other Hemingway, read and much enjoyed a year ago, was The Old Man and the Sea so I was mildly braced for more tales of Atlantic fishery, rather than for the intense story of disillusioned young things in Paris in the mid-1920s, drinking too much, shagging each other, and heading off to Spain for the bullfights. I must say I loved it; though the book starts off by telling us about Robert Cohn, in fact it is much more about the narrator, Jake Barnes, and his discreetly undescribed war wound; and a quest for courage and death by him and Brett, his and Cohn's mutual love interest. Hemingway's staccato writing style is enviably clear and crisp, telling us much more with some of the individual punctuation marks than you sometimes get with entire paragraphs. On the basis of this and The Old Man and the Sea I shall try and expand my Hemingway collection fairly rapidly.