Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea, or When Critics Go Wild.

By Stephen Randorf

Reviewers and critics during Vissarion Belinsky’s time (1811- 48) desired to say something meaningful and important, something that would impact their society, and since authors have a special talent in word craft as well, they too were expected to use their skills for the benefit of society. That is, to write something meaningful and important; and it was the critic’s job to hold them, the artists, accountable for this purpose. As expressed by Isaiah Berlin:

 For him [Belinsky] the man and the artist and the citizen are one; and
 whether you write a novel, or a poem, or a work of history or philosophy,
 or an article in a newspaper, or compose a symphony or a picture, you
 are, or should be, expressing the whole of your nature, not merely a
 professionally trained part of it, and you are morally responsible as a
 man for what you do as an artist (Berlin 107).

We should also understand the role in which literature and literary magazines played during this period of Russian history. I think it is best if we look at them (novels and literary magazines) in the same manner in which we view our cable news talk shows vying back and forth for the viewer’s attention. During Belinsky’s time, the main outlet to express political opinions was the literary magazine, and what authors and critics wrote had great importance.

Most readers come across Vissarion Belinsky in reference to Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-81) and his first novel Poor Folk (1846), which was highly praised. What Belinsky found of merit in this short work was its humanitarian view point and realistic style (Proctor 58). When Dostoevsky diverged from this form of realism in his second story, The Double, Belinsky’s opinion also changed, no longer was Dostoevsky considered the great up-and-coming writer.

So let’s go a little deeper into the views of Vissarion Belinsky, after all, his opinions, even though they were stretched, expanded upon, and exaggerated, had a great impact on criticism and literature.

Belinsky had two strong underlying beliefs: “faith in the future and dissatisfaction with the present” (Proctor 45). He also believed in progress, “the progress of humanity” (44), as well as the fact that people were good, and it is society that distorts them (57). Understanding that, the rational approach would then be to show (in novels) how society does this and how the lives of its people are affected, and in this way people can then make the appropriate changes to society. In order to do this, however, it is necessary that there be a clear understanding of what these effects are. It is the responsibility of the artist to present the clearest possible picture of reality, so these effects can be seen and then changed. In a letter, Belinsky wrote:

 When I give a penny to a soldier I almost cry, when I give a penny to a beggar
 I run from him as if I had done something terrible, as if I did not wish to hear
 the sound of my own steps [. . .] Has a human being the right to forget himself
 in art or science, while this goes on? (qtd. in Berlin 194).

It is this role of presenting reality which Belinsky gives to the artist and the novelist, and in order to fulfill this role, the artist must portray society as accurately as possible, that is, to present life in the most realistic manner. Did not Stendhal write in The Red and the Black (1830) that the novel is a mirror being carried along the rode that reflects reality back at us? (Dickstein 6-7).

Not only did Belinsky believe that the novel must reflect life, but that the authors should be judged by how well this is done; that it was the critic’s role, the critic’s responsibility, to determine how accurate, the author “represents what exists” in society (Proctor 50).

As I have said, Belinsky had faith in the future, but was dissatisfied with the present (45), which was with Russian life in particular. Consequently, he ended up praising authors who espoused this same dissatisfaction. But he had a third element regarding the artist’s role in society, perhaps a more dangerous one, although at first it may appear benign, and that was the “impulse to act . . .” to change what is, “to accelerate the arrival of what ought to be . . .” (45). In effect, art is a “tool, a lever, an instrument” for this change (74). By presenting what is, one can examine it and change it to how it “ought to be.”

This “ought to be” was determined by whom? This goes back to the presentation of reality, the idea that if people see how they live, what is occurring in their lives, they themselves will, in a rational world, be able to change it. So, it is important for this reason that the way of life, the way one lives, is accurately portrayed and reflected back in works of art.

Belinsky lived a short life of 37 years. N. G. Chernyshevsky (1828-89) was an active author and critic during this same period and quickly moved into the role of Belinsky’s successor, although as Isaiah Berlin states, “he was not a man of original ideas” (Berlin 256). It was in 1863 that Chernyshevsky came out with his own novel Chto delat’? (What Is To Be Done?).

 But he [Belinsky] never believed that it was the duty of the artist to prophesy
 or to preach – to serve society directly by telling it what to do, by providing
 slogans, by putting its art in the service of a specific programme (Berlin 207).

It was Chernyshevsky who saw art as a substitute for life (Proctor 69) sort of as a stand in. So, once life was reproduced in art or literature (like a mirror reflecting everything back at us) life’s circumstances can be explained and judged. Proctor quotes Chernyshevsky:

 A poet or artist cannot, even if he wanted to, refuse to pronounce his
 judgment on the phenomena depicted, and this judgment is expressed in his
 work. This is another significance of art by which art becomes one of the
 moral activities of man (69).

Of course the “moral activities” would not be to change the art or the novel to make it a more pleasant representation of life, but to change life itself, because that is what art represents, once you can see how it is, the reality of life, then you can take action to transform it into what “ought to be.” And in this way, you would not be changing or judging art for what it portrays, but life’s circumstances, in order to create a better future. It was Chernyshevsky in his work What Is To Be Done? who took the author’s role one step further, and that was to give guidance and instruction on what is to be done, presenting what is and also what ought to be in the same novel. As Proctor explains Chernyshevsky:

 . . . what was “real” was that which ought to be. What is real exists, in
 part, in the actual world, but more fully and completely in potentiality
 (in the actual world of the future, as transformed by man’s activity) . . . (71).

As I mentioned in the opening, it was the critic’s task to hold the artist accountable for this purpose, which may not necessarily be the artist’s or the author’s purpose. It should be pointed out that it was the critic who was determining this role for the author, which may not necessarily be the purpose the author had intended. It is here where things get a bit touchy, because the artist may have had something completely different in mind. Instead of using his or her creative work as a “tool, a lever, an instrument” for change, he or she may have wished to create art for its own sake, as they say: art for art’s sake, or for purely entertainment purposes. Either way, this leads to another debate.

We should not forget that it was because of these ideas first espoused by Belinsky and later Chernyshevsky, M. A. Dobrolyubov (1836-61), Dmitry Pisarev (1840-68), which were later adopted for political purposes by Maxim Gorky, Stalin and others, that poets and writers such as Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel to name a couple, and later the Night of the Murdered Poets, lost their lives because they chose to express their own opinions on art.

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Berlin, Isaiah Sir., Henry Hardy, and Aileen M. Kelly. Russian Thinkers. London:
 Penguin, 1978.
Dickstein, Morris. A Mirror in the Roadway, Literature and the Real World. Princeton:
 Princeton University Press, 2005.
Night of the Murdered Poets.,
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague:
 Mouton & Co., 1969.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf

Edmund Wilson – An American Perspective – Part 2

Edmund Wilson – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers. Part 2
By Stephen Randorf

One of my favorite reviewers and critics of the past is Edmund Wilson (1895-1972). I use the general term “reviewer” because he reviewed not just fiction, but all the arts: painting, theater, culture. Most of his reviews were short and written in a clear, simple, direct–if not sometimes pointed–manner, and they always brought a fresh way of understanding the subject of discussion. His reviews were readily published in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and others, and were then collected and published again.

Wilson arranged these collections by the decade in which the reviews were written, such as Classics and Commercials: A literary chronicle of the forties, which gives us a literary glimpse of that time period: what was written, read, and talked about. He also published longer articles, such as those in The Wound and the Bow (which is one of my favorites, particularly the article on Philoctectes) and Axel’s Castle (including articles on Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Stein, Rimbaud). The collection in The Shores of Light: A literary chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties is highly recommended. Mr. Wilson spent much of his later life writing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 and held a fascination for him and other scholars of his generation.

In Classics and Commercials, he is referring to commercial fiction, the popular books who Mr. Wilson, like many critics during that time (and our time as well), found too often competing with more important literary works. His idea concerning this is expressed in an essay on Finnegan’s Wake:

  Today when we are getting so many books in which the style is perfectly clear
  but the meaning nonexistent or equivocal, it affords a certain satisfaction
  to read something that looks like nonsense on the surface but underneath
  makes perfect sense (Classics and Commercials 189).

A commercially successful novel did not mean that it always lacked merit. He chose one in particular, The Robe, to critique. His 1944 review opens:

  The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas has become, from the point of view of
  sales, one of the greatest successes of publishing history. Published in
  October, 1942, it stood at one time at the head of the best-seller list
  for fiction for eleven consecutive months . . . It has sold, in less than
  two years, one million, four hundred and fifty thousand copies, and the
  publishers estimate that it has been read by five times that number of
  people (Classics and Commercials 204).

Due to this novels popularity, Mr. Wilson decided to read it, or as he says “take cognizance of it.” He found the results surprising:

  Instead of the usual trash aimed at Hollywood and streamlined for the
  popular magazines, one is confronted with something that resembles
  an old-fashioned historical novel for young people (Classics and

He mentions young people because he felt the novel diluted the “old grandiose language of . . . ancient Rome with a jargon which sounds as if Dr. Douglas had picked it up during the years when . . . he was a counsellor of college students at the Universities of Michigan and Illinois.” (Classics and Commercials 205-06). I find this comment interesting because it was during my college years (early 70’s) when I read it. I am not sure why I picked it up to read. I must have found a used copy. I do know that at the time, I was not in the habit of reading 500 page novels, even in paperback. But I do remember reading the whole book and enjoying it. Perhaps at the time, I did not know that the dialogue should have been written in the “old grandiose language” of ancient Rome. I do know that Marguerite Yourcenar’s historical novels, which I also enjoyed, were seeing a revival in translation around that time also.

In Mr. Wilson’s critique of The Robe, he does suggest answers for the book’s popularity.

  It is so difficult . . . to imagine that any literate person with even the
  faintest trace of literary taste could ever get through more than two pages
  of it for pleasure that one is astounded and terrified at the thought that
  seven million Americans have found something in it to hold their attention
  (Classics and Commercials, 206).

Well, that quote was not particularly complimentary to the novel. Perhaps it would be better to say, in spite of all its faults, which Mr. Wilson took time to delineate, that there was a moral aspect to it and it is that aspect which appealed to the readers. We should remember that the novel was published in 1942 and Mr. Wilson’s review was written several years later in August, 1944. The world at that time was not in too great a shape.

  It is quite natural that people should find it a relief to hear about some-
  body who was interested in healing the blind and the crippled rather
  than in blinding and crippling people, and in comforting the persecuted
  rather than in outlawing large groups of human beings (Classics and Commercials 207).

  When, therefore, one compares The Robe with the frankly faked publishers’
  goods with which the public is usually fed, one sees that Dr. Douglas’
  novel is a work of a certain purity and that the author deserves a certain
  respect (Classics and Commercials 208).

Mr. Wilson goes on to say, “It demonstrates that the ordinary reader, even in our ghastly time, does long for moral light, that he cannot live by bilge alone” (Classics and Commercials 208).

The Portable Edmund Wilson presents a good sample of his writing style as well. Although it lacks many of the short book reviews and criticisms, which he does so well in The Shores of Light, it does collect a broad sampling of his literary essays and commentaries. One of these reprinted essays concerns D. S. Mirsky (1890-1939), a soviet writer/translator who Mr. Wilson visited in Moscow in 1935 when, as a footnote pointed out, Mirsky’s life was still protected my Maxim Gorky. Mr. Wilson gives us a firsthand account of the complications concerning his visit and then the conversations he had with Prince Mirsky. I do not want to make this visit sound too clandestine, like any visit to Russia in the 30’s, there was red tape involved and Mirsky, himself, had his moments of silence.

Mr. Wilson had a skill in capturing the mood of the times, which is why I particularly like this essay on Mirsky. Wilson met him in Moscow and describes it as follows:

  Almost anything might lurk in those neglected old houses, and a good many
  queer things did. I heard stories of outlandish religious cults, spiritualistic
  seances, dens of gangsters and houses of prostitution . . .The address
  I had took me, I found, through a dark and narrow passage that was cluttered
  by a secondhand bookstall. I came out into a cobbled court where the walls
  had once been painted pink . . . I located Mirsky’s door on the stairway of
  one of the entrances. It was covered–I suppose, for warmth–by what I took to
  be a piece of old carpet. This muted my attempt to knock, so I tried turning
  the bell, which did not seem to ring (The Portable Edmund Wilson 240).

Mr. Wilson had to make a second attempt before the Prince, the learned scholar, came to the door. At one point, Wilson showed Mirsky a list of poets an acquaintance in Lennigrad had drawn up, and after a few comments by Mirsky, Wilson “resolved to destroy the list” for the safety of those on it. They met on occasion for several weeks after that. They met at dinners with his friends, drank cognac, expressed differing views on James Joyce, T. S. Eliot (who Mirsky had known in England), on translating Milton’s Paradise Lost, etc. Evidently, these talks did not go as smoothly as Mr. Wilson had hoped, “I guessed that the constraints of our conversation as due to the difficulty of adapting himself to a visitor from the outside world, and one he did not know” (The Portable Edmund Wilson, 240 – 241). He also mentioned “the dislocation in Mirsky’s whole intellectual life that had been caused by his conversion to Marxism” (The Portable Edmund Wilson 243).

Sometimes in the conversations, Prince Mirsky criticized the well known critic Vissarion Belinsky and accused him of lacking “any real understanding of literary art.” During better moments, he praised the poet Vladimir Mayakóvsky. And there were also moments of foreboding:

  On the other hand, even people who had something in common with Mirsky could
  not afford to know him . . . He had been famous for his arrogance and his
  irascibility among his own social world,and I used to shudder to think of
  the effort of self-restraint that his relations with his Soviet colleagues
  must cost him, and of the consequences when it inevitably broke down (The
  Portable Edmund Wilson
244 – 245).

This was the same man who had lived in London and made tours in Canada and the United States to lecture on literature. Without prolonging this recounting of Mr. Wilson’s visit to the Prince, he ends the essay by attaching a letter that was forwarded to him by a mutual friend in 1952, which confirmed the supposition that Mirsky had died in 1939. The letter was written by a political prisoner who had first met Prince Mirsky in a “transit camp” in 1937, and later:

  I met some of the people from the Moscow group, and they told me that
  Prince Svyátopolk-Mirsky was then in that camp in the hospital barracks.
  He was violently insane. I several time asked for permission to get to
  the hospital barracks, but this was always refused. At the end of sseveral
  weeks, I was notified by the orderly that Prince Svyátopolk-Mirsky was
  dead. I suppose that this was at the end of January, 1939 (The Portable
  Edmund Wilson

One last note on Edmund Wilson. Yes, he did read detective stories and commented on them. At least three of these essays are in Classics and Commercials, which I will be discussing at a later time. For now, let me say, I do not think any of them gave him much pleasure: “I did not care for Agatha Christie and I hope never to read another of her books” (Classics and Commercials 207).

The Internet Library has several of the books by Edmund Wilson mentioned above available to read on line. Located at

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: A literary chronicle of the forties.
  New York: Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light: A literary chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.
  New York: Farr, Straus and Young, Inc, 1952.
Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies In Literature.
  Columbus: Athens University Press, 1997.
Wilson, Edmund, and Lewis M. Dabney. The Portable Edmund Wilson. New York:
  Viking, 1983.

There are many more books by Edmund Wilson than listed above.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf

Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective – Part 1

I have decided to separate this topic, Edmund Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks, into two parts, and I will begin with Van Wyck Brooks (1886 – 1963).

Who is Van Wyck Brooks? Besides being a literary critic, I would say he was a well-read man. I say this because at one point in his life he scoffed at writers such as Lawrence of Arabia who bragged about the number of books he had read. Mr. Lawrence had reported to have personally read over 40,000 books at Oxford, and Thomas Wolfe allegedly claimed to have “devoured” 20,000 books. Mr. Brooks, to demonstrate the impossibility of such claims, used his own reading habits as an example.

  For the last twenty years I have been obliged to read on an average
  of six or seven hours a day. I have certainly read far more than these
  others have had time for, in the short periods referred to and how many
  books have I read in these twenty years? Something less than 6,000, I
  think, less than a book a day (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 11).

Of course, Mr. Brooks was probably a more careful reader, considering that many of those books were being read for reviewing purposes or historical research for his own writing projects.

He was born in 1886 and started his writing career in 1908. His early publications dealt with the American writers of the colonial period. I think most of us grew up with and learned about this period from the visual media and the historical dramatizations of it. That is, what we did not learn in fourth grade or ninth grade history, we supplemented by watching television, particularly such Disney programs as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Limited in its facts and heavy in adventure, its format was much easier to digest than pages from the Britannica. Now, films portraying this period are much more accurate and still maintain their ability to entertain.

The actual facts of this time period were sourced from the personal experiences and anecdotal stories recorded in letters, diaries, and personal memoirs. Parson Weems is one such individual who Mr. Brooks introduces us to in The World of Washington Irving. Parson Weems kept notes on the people he met and the stories he heard. He was a bookseller who traveled the rural countryside hawking books.

  With his ruddy visage and the locks that flowed over his clerical coat, one
  saw him bumping along in his Jersey wagon, a portable bookcase behind and
  a fiddle beside him. A little ink-horn hung from one of his lapels, and he
  carried a quill pen stuck in his hat; and he stopped now and then at a pond
  or a stream to wash his shirt . . . suspending his linen to dry on the frame
  of the wagon (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 1).

Wow, what a wonderfully drawn picture. Parson Weems needed ink and quill for his memoir that he later hawked with the other books. He is also attributed to having recorded the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

  Nothing in the way of an anecdote ever escaped him. He had preached at
  the Pohick church, hard by Mount Vernon, and once he had even visited
  the father of his country; and he may have picked up in the neighbourhood
  the story of the cherry-tree that soon became so famous when he published
  his book (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 1).

And it is from these source documents that Mr. Brooks uses to retell the intellectual story of the early colonists. The book that interested me the most was his The World of Washington Irving. Although it has sections about Washington Irving, it is more about America in the times when Irving lived, about the book clubs and what the colonist read: “Everyone read Tristram Shandy, and the sensibility of its author was a topic discussed in New York and all over the country” (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 31).

He does more than give us book titles, he amazes us on how well read they actually were. Whether wearing tri-corner hats or a coonskin cap, from the east coast in the 1800’s to settlers of the west in the 1840’s, the list of books and their availability is quite astounding. Mr. Brooks discusses Jefferson’s library, the library in Lexington, Kentucky (a city known as “the Athens of the West”) as well as William Byrd’s, who had “the largest library in the country, with the exception perhaps of Cotton Mather’s” (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 71), and he also noted the various language many of these books were printed in.

  This was true even in the recently settled state of Georgia. An
  observant traveller in the 1800 found books in thirteen languages there,
  including Chaldaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, Coptic and Malabar (Brooks,
  The World of Washington Irving 71).

I would like to continue on and on about how exciting this time period was in the creation and adoption of American literature, how the local people fastidiously recorded recollections and histories while at the same time reading the great English novels of Pope, Addison, Defoe, Swift, and discussing them in community book clubs, but this would bypass my initial interest in the writings of Mr. Brooks. And that would be his style, his use of simple prose to tell a story or to describe an event. This description of rural Virginia is an example:

  The taverns were like ale-houses in the remoter parts of Russia, where
  travellers slept three in a bed and six in a room, with bare bleak dirty
  walls and a few old broken chairs and benches, desolate, noisy, cold
  and alive with vermin. One recognized these taverns by the hogs at the
  door and the sign of an earthen jug suspended from a pole, and a corner
  of the public-room was railed off for a bar, with a rum-keg and a row of
  dingy tumblers (Brooks, The World of Washington Irving 66).

Although Edmund Wilson, who will be the topic of the next discussion, had not been too kind toward Mr. Brooks and repeated the charge that “he is not really a literary critic because he is not interested in literature as an art and lies indeed under serious suspicion of not being able to tell chalk from cheese (Wilson 13). He does have some kind words to say about The World of Washington Irving, that it “revived the intellectual ferment of the period just after the Revolution” and Mr. Wilson goes on to say, referencing this book and the previous one of Mr. Brooks, that they seem “to have a freedom of movement and an exhilaration of spirit, as well as a brilliance of writing” (Wilson 423).

Mr. Brooks was also a critic, and in his later years seemed to aim his criticism at other critics whom he often found himself at odds with. Even though he wrote about critics and criticism in general terms, at times he seemed to be defending his own books from critical attacks by others.

Mr. Brooks also wrote, From A Writer’s Notebook, which is a compilation of his notes and thoughts about readers, writers, critics, and literary life. This book consists of short paragraphical sections presented almost as aphorisms and also longer sections extending several pages. For example:

  It is difficult to understand living writers because they are involved in our
  own problems, which we cannot solve ourselves (Brooks, From A Writer’s

  A writer is important not by the amount of territory he enters or claims, but
  by the amount he colonizes (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 16).

  There are writers who, as writers, ought to die, and the only way to contribute
  to this end is not to mention them (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 16).

In spite of being critical of some writers, Mr. Brooks did believe that an author’s background had little to do with creating good literature. This seems particularly topical in today’s e-book publishing world where fresh and interesting novels are derived from authors who have diverse educational backgrounds. Mr. Brooks argued against the concept that “great writing requires for its production a scholar’s training.”

  Something is wrong with this conception the common reader feels at once,
  and all the more when he considers how little education certain great
  writers have had even in our time, when education is virtually within reach
  of all, or how little Yeats had, or Kipling, Shaw, Lawrence, or George Moore,
  or Melville whose “Harvard and Yale,” as he said, was a whaleship (Brooks, The

And he raises the possibility of the critic’s hypocrisy when they do offer praise to such authors:

  When their work was well constructed, it was because they were craftsmen
  and not for reasons connected with university living, and when it was ill
  constructed it showed how far a writer can be a great writer without being a
  craftsman at all. That their work has often been ill constructed, like Dickens’s
  work or Dostoievsky’s, follows from the fact, –or what Melville took to be a
  fact,–that “all genius,” as he put it, “is full of trash.” Was not Melville partly
  right, at least, in this? (Brooks, The Writer 16).

Mr. Brooks continued with his own opinion:

  But when one speaks of the common reader and what he feels and likes, one
  takes issue with all the new critics at the very outset, though one has the
  sanction of Dr. Johnson who said that by the “common sense of readers . . . all
  claim to poetical honours . . . must be finally decided” (Brooks, The Writer 16-17).

He does have something to say about crime writers in the early 50’s, and particularly how the books are marketed:

  The present vogue of crime stories suggests the vast popular appetite for any-
  thing that assumes or proves the viciousness of man, and one might almost say
  now that popular success and critical success hinge equally on a low view of the
  human condition. To advertise a novel now, whether for popular or critical
  readers, one has only to call it “tough, sensational, brutal,” –I am quoting from
  the first book-supplement that is close at hand (Brooks, The Writer 161).


  This is created for him [the writer] by the climate of his time, its prevailing
  spiritual currents and modes of feelings; and in our time the unconscious minds
  of writers prompt them to see mainly the negative aspects of life (Brooks, The

Although most of the authors that he references have long since gone, the debate that he entered is not. He defended Frost, who was accused of being a “popular” writer, when he said:

  “. . . with Faulkner selling like bags of peanuts and in view of the enormous
  sales of Scott Fitzgerald, Wolfe and so many others, how can we feel that the
  question of numbers means more or less in our time than it meant fifty or a hundred
  years ago? As often as not, the best books have been the most popular books, and
  is that not really all one can say on the subject?” (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook

But he does say more: “Generally speaking, popular books have two traits in common, a subject of central human interest and a certain vitality in the presentation, and these traits may be found equally in good books and bad” (Brooks, From A Writer’s Notebook 122).

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
— . The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
— . The Writer in America. New York, Dutton, 1953.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York:
  Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1950.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Georg Lukács – Soul and Form

Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviews.
by Stephen Randorf.

Since I first read Soul and Form in 1980, I have always been impressed by the insight of this Hungarian author, Georg Lukács (1885-1971). I may not share his political leanings, but I have always found, on each page of his essays and in his various books on the novel, something to think about. Very few critics have spoken so passionately or so eloquently about literature than he has. In his opening essay, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” he stated:

  The critic’s moment of destiny, therefore, is that moment at which things become
  forms–the moment when all feelings and experiences on the near or the far side of
  form receive form, are melted down and condensed into form. It is the mystical
  moment of union between the outer and the inner, between soul and form. . . . Form
  is reality in the writings of critics; it is the voice with which they address their
  questions to life (8).

I decided to include the specific essay, “Richness, Chaos, Form. A Dialogue Concerning Laurence Sterne” because of its unique dialogical form. With his stage directions included, this review could easily be performed as a play.

The three main characters are: two young men, Vincent and Joachim, and a young woman, referred to as “the girl” or “she”. Both men are vying for her affections, and they compete by putting forth their best arguments for and against the English author, Laurence Sterne and the 1808 volume of his work which contained A Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. You might think of this competition as a form of intellectual dueling.

The chapter opens with a description of the location: “The scene is a simple furnished middle-class girl’s room where new and very old objects are mixed together in a curiously inorganic fashion.” The young woman of college age is described as “a strikingly handsome girl.” The doorbell rings and she lets in a fellow student, who is “slightly younger: a tall, well-built, fair-haired young man of twenty or twenty-two.” And we are told that he is in love with her (124).

The opening discussion, which gives us insight as to the character of these two people, centered around homework and its purpose. She asked, “Why take so much trouble . . . who’ll notice if anything is lacking?” And he replies as a rebuttal, “Joachim,” the young man who will soon be entering this scene (124). He goes on to explain his personal interest and what he gains from this intellectual curiosity:

  I do it for my own sake. I enjoy working, just at the moment. I like it. It’s nice
  to deal with little facts. They bring me face to face with many things which
  otherwise I should have been too lazy to notice (124-125).

And he added: “I lead a comfortable life–and call it my ‘scientific conscience’. And I like to be called a ‘serious scholar’.” And her reply? “Don’t be cynical, Vincent.” and thus we learn his name (125).

Before Vincent’s competitor entered, the main topic was introduced: “I’ve brought the Sterne along. As you see, I didn’t forget it.” And a quick description of the book as a physical object followed: “A beautiful edition” she said as she stroked the binding. Vincent added: “Have you seen the Reynolds frontpiece? Splendid, isn’t it?” She responded by saying it’s “pretty” (125).

Joachim arrived and immediately asked, “What are you reading?” And then the competition between the two began.

In this discussion, I believe Lukács is setting up the criteria, a sort of road map, a method for us to read and evaluate literature in a rational manner. Goethe’s ideas regarding form were brought up in the discussion, and I believe the purpose of that was to show how opinions of well-established authorities, such as Goethe, can be used to set objective parameters for how a book should be judged.

Joachim interjected Goethe when he asked:

  What would he have said to this? Wouldn’t he have resented this confusion of
  heterogeneous bits and pieces? Wouldn’t he have despised what you were
  reading, on account of its raw, disordered state? . . . and makes no effort
  to unify them, to give them form, however imperfect?(126).

Vincent argued back, “Goethe was never a dogmatist” and then he quoted Goethe: “‘let us be many-sided!’” (126). The interjection of Goethe (and later Cervantes, Carlyle, Swift) laid the groundwork for much of their discussion, specifically on form and chaos, using Tristram Shandy and other literary works as examples. For those who are familiar with Tristram Shandy, know how well this novel is suited for such a strong back and forth discussion on form.

Unfortunately, Joachim sabotaged the whole argument for using an outside authority when he said, “Quotations support everything and, in reality, are at the basis of nothing” (127). And Vincent agreed, “but you’re right about one thing: let’s not argue in his name. We can’t prove either of us right,” but to salvage part of the argument, Vincent added, “he can only supply us with ammunition” (127).

The two men moved on to the aspect of “playfulness,” a quality which both agreed was in the novel. But how does it contribute to the story? And to what end?

This topic arose from their discussion on unity and whether or not Sterne’s playfulness aided or hindered the story’s sense of unity. Vincent found value in the playfulness and defended it, “Playful will give gravity,” he said (136). Joachim took the opposite side, that its use was “a clever cover-up for weakness” and only when everything is said, presented, can we then “break off and begin playing” (137). Here, Joachim is referring to the books fragmentation and incompleteness. To sum up Joachim’s argument, the author would need a unified whole, before he can be playful inside the story structure.

Joachim also believed that whenever Sterne came to a dramatic part in Tristram Shandy, he turned the story into play “because he can’t give it serious literary form, he pretends that he doesn’t want to” (138). Consequently, there was no building up to an idea or proposition that leads to a solid conclusion, but only a point and counterpoint.

Out of this came an interesting definition of “artistic form,” one that echoes back to the above opening quote from Lukács. This is offered by Vincent:

  . . . . form is the essence of whatever has to be said, condensed to a point
  where we are conscious only of the condensation and scarcely of what it is a
  condensation of. . . . form gives a rhythm to what has to be said, and the
  rhythm becomes . . . something abstractable, something that can be experienced
  by itself (144).

Later, Vincent returned to the idea of unity through fragmentation. He gave it purpose, defended it against Joachim’s negative view, and concluded: “only the ability to create order, to make a beginning and an end; for only an end can be the beginning of something new, and only by constant beginnings can we grow to greatness” (149-150).

Let me note here that it was only Vincent and Joachim, who took part in these discussions, and “the girl” or “she” sat quietly and listened. Ironically, it was only when the two young men stopped talking and the room was filled with the other’s mutual silence, did the misunderstandings occur. The narrator told us that one of them “interprets the silence still more incorrectly” and then “once more each of them misunderstands the other’s silence” (150). Of course the reader is aware of these misunderstandings, and perhaps if there is a moral (I doubt the author intended to be one), it would be: Don’t give up, keep talking.

After the discourse on Sterne broke down and the room was set in silence, one of them quietly leaves. The two remaining characters revert to being nameless again and are referred to as “he” and “she”. It was as if their intellectual discourse had given them a name and an individual identity. Now lacking discourse, they also lack an identity.

Oddly, it was not the argument that won “the girl” over, but the words of the author in Tristram Shandy as the remaining young man read it aloud to her. And when he stopped reading, the story ended with a kiss.

Who won the argument? Who finally won the girl over? For that you will need to read Soul and Form.

Even though Soul and Form was translated (Anna Bostock) and published in 1974 & 1978, these essays by Georg Lukács were written between 1908 and 1910. Other essays in this book concern the writings of Rudolf Kassner, Novalis, Theodor Storm, Stefan George, Charles-Louise Philippe, Paul Ernst.

~ ~ ~

Works cited:
Lukács, György. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.

Georg Lukacs praises the novel Lost Illusions by stating that “its portrayal of the time rises to a solitary height far above any other French literary work of the period” (Lukacs 49). Lukacs also states that “Balzac’s many-sided, many-tiered world approaches reality much more closely than any other method of presentation” (Lukacs 58).

Of course it is important to Mr. Lukacs and for the Marxist side of his argument that this novel has the solid stamp of realism. If he is to show that the world of literature is being commodified by a capitalist structure, then he needs to demonstrate how this has come to be. To do so, he uses Lost Illusions and shows us how “the writers and journalists are exploited” and that “their talent has become a commodity, an object of profiteering by the capitalist speculators who deal in literature” (Lukacs 50).

But, for the purpose of the discussion here, we will be using this “portrayal of the time” and its realistic nature to look at a few specific comments made by several of Balzac’s characters as it relates to critics and reviewers.

Many readers, such as myself, are drawn to Balzac’s novels because his characters are so wonderfully drawn. To quote Mr. Lukacs again: “The bond which links each character with the whole of the story is provided by some element in the make-up of the character itself . . . but it is the broader inner urges and compulsions of the characters themselves which give them fulness of life and render them non-mechanical, no mere components of the plot” (Lukacs 54).

So let me start this discussion with a brief summary of the plot and the two main characters.

This novel centers on Lucien de Rubempré, who is new to the world of authorship and publishing—and to Parisian life. When Lucien comes to Paris, he leaves behind in the provinces a boyhood friend, David Sechard. Although this friend does not play a direct role in Balzac’s criticism of reviewers, David Sechard does play an interesting role in the world of publishing.

This novel takes place during that great period when the public had a growing interest in books, mainly because of their availability, and that in turn sprung an even greater book printing industry. However, paper at that time was made from linen and cotton rag. Books were expensive, but not so much that they were out of purchasing range for the middle class or the growing bourgeois, nor were they priced so high as to halt their demand, but because of the expense and growing demand for linen and cotton rag, a substitute material, one that was more economical to produce, was desperately being sought after. And if a new product was discovered, the inventor would become quite wealthy. Balzac portrayed David Sechard as such an inventor. I only take the time to mention this because of Sechard’s ingenious ideas for a substitute product for cotton rag. And what kind of pulp does this provincial genius use to make paper? Ragweed and thistle.

So let us move on to the cynicism which so many of his characters openly express through the conversations between publishers and critics and, for our purpose, conversations with Lucien de Rubempré. Balzac, as an authoritative narrator, sums up his theme late in the novel:

   Criticism of today, after making a burnt-offering of a man’s book, proffers a
   hand to him. The victim must embrace the officiating priest under penalty of
   running the gauntlet of pleasantry. If he refuses, a writer passes for an un-
   sociable man, quarrelsome, eaten up with self-conceit, unapproachable,
   resentful, full of rancour. Today, when an author has received treacherous
   stabs in the back, avoided the snares set for him with infamous hypocrisy
   and suffered the worst possible treatment, he hears his assassins wishing
   him good-day and putting forth claims to his esteem and even his friend-
   ship (Balzac 441).

A reviewer for a small newspaper, Etienne Lousteau, explains to Lucien how their world works. The next quote shows how petty a newspaper reviewer can be when he does not get an extra review copy to sell on the side.

   ”I am forced to bark at the publisher who sends too few copies of his books
   to the paper: the paper takes two and Finot sells them; I also require two
   for sale. Even if he brings out a masterpiece, a publisher stingy with copies
   gets a drubbing. It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds
   of others. And don’t imagine that the political world is much cleaner than
   the literary world; in both of them bribery is the rule; every man bribes or
   is bribed. When a publisher is bringing out a more or less important work,
   he pays me not to attack it. And so my income is in direct ratio to the
   prospectuses of forthcoming books” (Balzac 246).

Later, the reviewer Lousteau explains how he writes the review for a non-fiction book:

   ”Pooh! You’ve no idea how they’re dashed off. Take Travels in Egypt: I opened
   the book and read a bit here and there without cutting the pages, and I
   discovered eleven mistakes in the French. I shall write a column to the
   effect that even if the author can interpret the duck-lingo carved on the
   Egyptian pebbles they call obelisks, he doesn’t know his own language – and
   I shall prove it to him” (Balzac 246).

Of course the remark about not cutting the pages meant that he could resell the book as if it were new. This newspaper reviewer also had an interesting way to review novels, by letting a friend read them in his stead.

   ”As regards novels, Florine is the greatest novel-reader in the world. She
   analyses them for me, and I knock off an article based on her opinion. When
   she’s been bored by what she calls “literary verbiage” I take the book into
   serious consideration and ask the publisher for another copy. He sends it
   along, delighted at the prospect of a favourable review” (Balzac 259).

And to this Lucien protests.

   “Great Heavens! But what about criticism, the sacred task of criticism?”

Lousteau goes on to explain:

   “My dear chap,’” said Lousteau. “Criticism’s a scrubbing brush which you
   mustn’t use on flimsy materials – it would tear them to shreds” (Balzac 259).

Several pages forward, a reviewer discusses a critical review he wrote on Lucien’s own work and the column length of that review, by which a reviewer’s payment is measured.

   ”One hundred francs a column,” Blondet replied, “It’s not a great deal when
   ones’s obliged to read a hundred books in order to find one worth writing
   about – like yours. Your work gave me great pleasure, you have my word
   for it.”

   ”And it brought him fifteen hundred francs,” said Lousteau to Lucien”
   (Balzac 269-270).

Again, in Balzac’s world, it all comes back to getting paid.

At one point in the novel, Lucien was asked to review a book, a well written book, for which he exclaimed, “It is a fine book!” And then he was given this advice:

   “Oh come, my dear, learn your trade,” said Lousteau with a laugh. “Even
    if the book’s a masterpiece, your pen must prove that it’s a piece of
   stupid nonsense, a dangerous and unwholesome work.”

   “How can I do that?”

   “By making every quality a defect” (Balzac 355-356).

Lousteau goes on for several lengthy paragraphs to explain exactly how Lucien should do this.

There are many other comments concerning critics and reviewers in the novel. Most of them pertain to the theater, noted actresses, and playwrights; and demonstrate that they too were not immune to this world of bribery where “every man bribes or is bribed.”

With a title such as Lost Illusions, one can guess how the exploits of these characters will end. For a hint, half way through the novel, we are told:

   ”It is difficult to keep illusions on any subject in Paris,” answered Lucien
   as they turned in at his door. “There is a tax upon everything —everything
   has its price, and anything can be made to order—even success”
   (Balzac 387).

~  ~  ~

Project Gutenberg has this novel online free to read or download, but I prefer the more current Penguin 1971 version. I am not sure which is a more accurate translation. However, in most cases, I found the language more expressive and engaging in the Penguin edition. I also like the periodic breaks with the inserted chapter headings.

For an interesting website on the history of paper, go to:

Works Cited:
Balzac Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth,
   Penguin, 1971.
Lukacs, Georg. Studies in European Realism. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Reviews and Reviewers – Introduction

by Stephen Randorf.

Not all readers check out the reviews for an author’s book before they purchase it. And authors often regard them, the reviews, as a nuisance, especially when they are critical. But for the readers who do read them, I believe what they want, what they are looking for, is some idea of what the book is about: Is this the type of story that I have liked in the past? Will I like these characters? Is this book or author similar to something else I have read? How long exactly will it take me to read this? However, for authors, particularly those in the burgeoning crop of indie authors, such reviews (any reviews) are quite significant for the sale and promotion of their books.

The use of opinions by other like-minded people to judge whether a book is worth their time to read or not – that is – to take that long journey through the pages of someone else’s words and thoughts and come out with a good feeling afterward, is not something new. But I doubt most readers understand the significance of these reviews to the authors. A 5 star review or even a 1 star review? An author parades them like a badge of honor. “Look! See? People like what I have done.”

So I have collected a few interesting thoughts and opinions of reviews from the publishing past of authors and critics who are long since gone. This discussion will be directed more toward reviews and reviewing in general than anything specific to writers of crime fiction.

The first one up in the queue will be Honore de Balzac and his novel Lost Illusions (1837), which is concerned with the commercialization of the publishing industry in the early eighteen hundreds. His characters are used as stand-ins for the wider commercialization of the growing bourgeois class in France at that time. This novel, a wonderful novel and of considerable length, is filled with an interesting cast of characters, including poets, publishers, critics, and reviewers. As one such character in the novel, a reviewer, states: “It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds of others.” He is referring to taking bribes and selling review copies on the side.

And then I move on to Soul and Form, a short book and one of the earlier ones by Georg Lukacs, an Hungarian writer who frequently wrote on theories of the novel and questioned the commercialized state that our world has moved into. Many of his books are a bit dry and hard trudging, but in Soul and Form his writing is much more lyrical, and in this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form.) he uses a dialogue method to review a volume of Laurence Sterne’s work. As we will see he does this by presenting two young men who intellectually compete for the attention of a woman. This dialogue format gives us – the reader – dramatic tension, and with each young man taking opposite sides of each argument, both the pros and cons of Sterne’s work are fully discussed. It is only this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form) which I will be referencing.

I personally love the book reviews by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) almost more for his clear use of language than their content. I think he is read less today because of the fact that most of the books and authors which he reviewed have either become mainstays in our culture and have been written about more fully by others or that the author reviewed has slipped into obscurity and no one cares to write anything more about him. I am grouping Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) in this same category of reviewers. He is another writer who one wishes to read just for the pleasure of his use of the American language. Most of Brook’s commentary concerns the early American authors of the 1800’s. Did you ever wonder where the farmers in rural New England or the South bought their copies of The Vicar of Wakefield, Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? There is a book I would like to tell you about.

Finally, we have Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) and his circle of friends, including Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. And what is there to be said about these people? Perhaps that they took literary criticism to the extreme? They argued that the merits of a book should be judged on a moral basis by what it contributes to society. If it does not contribute in a positive, moral way, then is it lacking. This may appear like a good argument at first or at least one worth giving some thought to, after all, most of us writers would like to believe that literature does matter, but what happens to books and novels, under that criteria? What happens if they fall short of this measure? Or what if an author does not wish to influence society in any way? What becomes of their work? Or of them?

There was a time when critics, these critics and their school of thought, actually had an influence on what books should be read and what books were harmful to society. These men might not have been alive when this attitude was institutionalized by others, such as Maxim Gorky, or when fine writers such as Isaac Babel and others who were silenced or disappeared, but they did plant the seed. I will not be discussing the extremes in which others took this school of thought, but I do think that there is a door which we can open safely to consider the idea that literature does matter, and it can be discussed as a counterpoint to the idea of “art for art’s sake” as Vissarion Belinsky did.

Topic headings:
Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.
Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviewing.
Edmund Wilson & Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers.
Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea (or when critics go wild.)

Works Cited:
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
———. The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York: Farr,
  Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague ;
  Paris : Mouton, 1969.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 2

I am sure some of you are wondering whether this discussion on words and tone is relevant to your reading enjoyment, and perhaps you are asking: “Why bring this up? It’s the plot that matters.” And to that, I agree. But first, let us look at how Mr. Simenon uses plot in his novels. I was drawn to his stories because of his unique approach, one that uses the detective format to tell a story, not about the detective, but about the characters. In his stories, we have two major participants: the murderer and the victim. As Maigret is quoted: “I will know the murderer when I know the victim well” (qtd in Bresler 79), and so he begins to tell us about the victim. As Mr. Bresler explains:

   His role from the very start, unlike that of his greatest English rival, Sherlock
   Holmes, is not to reason, but to understand intuitively the mainsprings of human
   activity so that he arrives at a complete comprehension of how, and why, the
   victim and the murderer have behaved as they have done (79).

The author uses this technique as a sort of “rope” to tell the story. He quotes Mr. Simenon:

   “If one chapter is bad, people will go through the book anyway because they
   like to know the end. And equally you have a rope – the detective is a kind
   of rope, so you follow him. And because he is a detective he has the right to
   ask questions of people. He has the right to enter their houses” (Bresler 65-66).

And it is through this method that we are introduced to the characters and the story surrounding their circumstances, those of the murderer’s and those of the victim’s, the type of life they lived and how they got to such a state in which we are reading about. And it is this story, the story about these people, that Simenon wishes to tell and not a story about his detective, as he says, who is only “a kind of rope” to assist us, the reader, through the story. As a matter of fact, we know little about Inspector Maigret; little is said or revealed about him other than what is warranted by the plot. He is not presented in a manner anything like what we are accustomed to in today’s crime fiction. He is not drunk, moody or depressed. He is not an obsessive, he is not trying to settle a grudge that only he can resolve, nor is he trying to discover his identity or fight personal demons, and he does not have a side occupation of killing people at night.

Although these types of crime solvers do make interesting and engaging reads, what we do have, what this author gives us in the way of a detective, is a decent married man, clever and intuitive, a person who is good at solving crimes. Again, the Inspector, is not the focus of the story, but the murderers and the victims are. What the Inspector does contribute to the novel is the “rope.”

I believe Agatha Christie also used this technique in her Miss Marple stories as did other writers in the first half of the 20th century. With the introduction of the Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade-type detectives, the focus started to shift and writers of mystery stories discovered that they could add another element to their stories, a third element, and that is by enlarging the role of the individual who does the investigating: the private detective and later the police detective. Instead of using the victim or the victim’s family as sympathetic characters for the reader to identify with (and sometimes even using the murderer for this purpose), the reader can now latch onto the principal character, especially when he/she has been given an interesting and engaging personality or a great personal challenge (drunkenness, moodiness, depression, etc.) The more volatile this personality is or the personal challenge he faces, the greater the roller coaster ride of emotions will be for the reader, and consequently a more engaging story.

However, this third element of a more fully developed detective is not what Mr. Simenon uses in his Maigret novels. But he was concerned about creating three-dimensional characters, just not in his Maigret novels. In The Paris Review he states:

   My characters – I would like to have them heavier, more three-dimensional. And
   I would like to make a man so that everybody, looking at him, would find his
   own problems in this man. . . . My characters have a profession, have character-
   istics; you know their age, their family situation, and everything. But I try to make
   each one of those characters heavy, like a statue (Collins).

The reader can decipher certain attributes about Inspector Maigret by this character’s pattern of behavior and his use of keen intuition. As for his physical appearance, it is often noted that in Simenon’s eighty-plus novels, this detective is only described with the scantiest of details: there is mention of him being a big man, wearing a bowler hat, and perhaps a “pipe clenched between his teeth” (67). We also know his coat had a velvet collar. Bresler discusses the “facelessness of Maigret” and quotes Simenon as saying, “I still do not know what his face looks like. . . . I only see the man and the presence” (66).

So that brings us back to the main subject of each novel. What we have are the two principle characters: the murderer and the victim (assuming that they may not always be singular) and the plot through which they are both revealed. I have two examples of such plots. In Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, Inspector Maigret steals a suitcase filled with old clothes at a train station and follows various suspects while trying to figure out why a young man would kill himself over its loss and why others would search so passionately for its return. Of course, the hook is the suicide resulting from the loss of the suitcase, and from that Simenon unwinds a story about a group of men who the detective follows from Paris to Belgium and Germany, and who at times each want to confess something to this detective and thus reveals part of their life story, only to have them pull back later, leaving Maigret (and the reader) to put the pieces together.

The story line in Maigret’s Pickpocket, a later novel, is about a pickpocket who returns the wallet he has stolen from Maigret, after which he leads the Inspector to a dead body, the man’s wife. The story unfolds as the Inspector traces the man’s alibi back to various restaurants and cafes through the questioning of film producers, directors, and camera men whom are involved in their own way in the pickpocket’s life; and through such means as questioning, Mr. Simenon and his detective, keeps the reader guessing as to whom among them could be the murderer.

We can see from these examples how Mr. Simenon uses plot to reveal the lives of his characters, the murderers and the victims. And through his method of using simple common words, in the simplest of forms, and lacking any unnecessary adjective or adverb, he gives us an interesting story, one which can be read through with ease. This may seem inconsequential, but Mr. Simenon was actually concerned about the length in pages and reading time of his novels. In answer to a question, if length was important to him, he responded by saying:

   Yes. That sounds like a practical question, but I think it is important, for the
   same reason you can’t see a tragedy in more than one sitting. I think that the
   pure novel is too tense for the reader to stop in the middle and take it up the
   next day (Collins).

Although I believe this quote was referring to his later novels, I can’t help think that the seed of this idea was already planted in his early works and matured into his later non-Maigret novels.

As a side note, I am sure that this style also makes the novels easy to translate. We are fortunate to have most, if not all, of the Maigret novels in translation and available.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York:
   Beaufort Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The
   Paris Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Penguin
   Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1963.
—. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Georges Simenon – An Appreciation of Style, Part 1

I have made several references to my appreciation of Mr. Simenon’s writing style, specifically regarding his Maigret novels, and I would like to take a few minutes now to explain why. Most of the information here, which relates to Mr. Simenon personally, is from Fenton Bresler’s book, The Mystery of Georges Simenon, A Biography. It was written in 1983 while the author was still alive. I also make reference to an interview he gave to The Paris Review in the summer of 1955. Mr. Simenon died in 1989 having written a good 80 plus Maigret novels. I am sure his fans and followers have already discovered this Maigret website (
f_maig.htm) which is current with all information relating to Mr. Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.

Mr. Simenon had written other detective stories before his most famous one (early 1930s), which were sold to the pulp magazines. Later, after his success, he wrote other novels along with his Maigrets. These were more psychological and perhaps even literary, a term he rarely used. Regarding the early detective and adventure stories, he is credited with having written eighty pages a day. Bresler quotes him as saying, “That means eighty pages of typing a day, at ninety-two words a minute,” Simenon goes on to explain:

   You don’t count in words in France or in Belgium, you count in lines. And they
   were novels of 10,000 lines each and I wrote them in three days! In French there
   are roughly seven words to a line, in English there are more because the words
   are shorter and in German there are less because the words are longer, but if you
   multiply by seven that means every novel was 70,000 words. In one month I once wrote
   five such novels (qtr in Bresler 52).

He was not referring to the Maigret novels, but those that were published under his seventeen pseudonyms, and “he could have six stories in a single issue of a magazine, each story signed with a different name” (Bresler 53). This prodigious output reminds me of the American writer of western tales, Max Brand (Frederick Faust), who was also in the habit of publishing under various pseudonyms in the same issue of a magazine: “Argosy for August 23, 1935, carried installments of book-length serials by Max Brand and Dennis Lawton, and a long story by George Challis: but no ordinary reader would have guessed that they were written by the same author” (Easton 182).

Commenting on his own method of writing during those early years before the Maigrets, he said:
   I would sit in front of the windows in the flat in the Place des Vosges, then suddenly
   I would get up, go the typewriter and write a story. Then I’d sit down by the window
   again. That happened up to eight times a day because I often wrote eight stories in a
   day (qtr. in Bresler 53).

What I like about Simenon’s style, which I suspect others do, also for this same reason, is his economy of words. He does this almost to a fault (the “fault” I will discuss at another time). Mr. Simenon claimed, from a statistic he had read once, that half the people of France used no more than 600 words in total. “So I endeavoured to use only ‘material’ words: a table, a chair, the wind, the rain. If it rains, I write, ‘It rains’; you will not find in my books drops of water that transform themselves into pearls, or I don’t know what. I want nothing that resembles literature. I have a horror of literature” (Bresler 2). And in reference to a question regarding the novel The Brothers Rico, (a non-Maigret crime novel) Simenon says, “I tried to do it very simply, simply. And there is not a single ‘literary’ sentence there, you know? It’s written as if by a child” (Collins).

Mr. Simenon was also economical in the Maigret novels when it comes to the use of internal dialogue, unlike, say Ruth Rendell, and more along the lines of Agatha Christie in the Miss Marple novels. Most of Maigret’s inner thoughts expressed on the page are those which pertain directly to the case, usually those inspired by the sight of someone present or within sight. To keep a 3rd person narrative moving, I believe the limit of internal dialogue is important, and I enjoy seeing how he handles this.

There are variations to this however, in Maigret’s Pickpocket (1967), the opening chapters have him ruminating about his wife acquiring a driver’s license, of course these ruminations are important to the plot, if he had not been distracted by these thoughts, he would have been aware that a pickpocket was after his wallet and ID. In an earlier work, Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets (1931), the reader is filled in on the action during the first few pages by an omniscient narrator, but this one particular narrator does not seem to want to leave and so remains long after the novel’s storyline was in full play.

Most of these incursions by this narrative voice was to guide the reader. Several examples of this from Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets are as follows: “Was it Maigret or Van Damme who suggested a stroll? In fact, neither did. It came about naturally” (Simenon 50) and “Had he in fact spoken? Could the Inspector, in that fantastic atmosphere, have been the victim of a delusion?”(Simenon 90). These side comments, acting as guideposts for the reader, do fit the free flowing style of this particular short novel. However, I do not see this narrative tone repeated in the later Maigret novels where such a tone would not fit.

To be continued.

Works Cited:
Bresler, Fenton S. The Mystery of Georges Simenon: a biography. New York: Beaufort
  Books, Inc., 1983.
Collins, Carvel. “Interviews. Georges Simenon, The Art of Fiction No 9.” The Paris
  Review. The Paris Review, n.d. Web.
Easton, Robert. Max Brand, The Big Westerner. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.
Simenon, Georges. Maigret and the Hundred Gibbets, trans. Tony White. Harmondsworth,
  Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1963.
—-. Maigret’s Pickpocket, trans. Nigel Ryan. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder, Part 3

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel (1985 Rev. Ed.)
Part 3 of 3, by Stephen Randorf.

I was hoping to wrap this up in two parts but, as you can see, I got carried away with earlier authors and I never did reach the point of mentioning Symons’s impressions of the more current writers in this genre, which I will do now. But first, let me pause for a second to give a spoiler alert. Julian Symons’s Bloody Murder was revised and republished in 1985, which means no discussion of Ian Rankin, no Sue Grafton, no Elmore Leonard. Gorky Park, yes; but no Dan Brown or James Patterson.

It does mean that a good discussion of Rene Raymond (1906-1985), better known as James Hadley Chase or by his other pen-name Raymond Marshall, is included. After reviewing Raymond’s list of novels, he is apparently another one of those writers who had no life except for the one in front of the typewriter. Unfortunately, as Symons comments, “At worst the writing in his books is shoddy, at best like a secondhand James M. Cain” (199). In regard to Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) and the crude violence he saw in the novels, Symons says, “The most nauseating and disquieting thing about these books is that Mike Hammer is the hero” (202). There is enough information available (including YouTube) regarding the author, Mickey Spillane, and his novels that one can form his or her own opinion. Symons is also less kind to the one-time popular Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977) whose work he says “may appeal to readers with a mental age of twelve” (202).

More space is devoted to Ed McBain, who fairs better in Symons’s opinion. There is also Ross McDonald, and the mention of George V. Higgins (1939 – 99) who he claimed had written “the most interesting and extraordinary recent work in the crime story” genre (175). This includes The Digger’s Game (1973) and Cogan’s Trade (1974). Of course Symons does discuss the works by P. D. James and Ruth Rendell as well as the Superintendent Andy Dalziel novels by Reginald Hill in good detail.

Under the chapter heading, “Big Producers and Big Sellers,” Symons goes on to mention about 20 plus writers, giving them about a paragraph or two each. And then, finally, we have “A Short History of the Spy Story.” In Symons’s typical fashion, he starts with the earliest, James Fenimore Cooper, but quickly goes on to discuss William Le Queux (1864-1927) and his spy novels, which took place during the time when “France was regarded as the prime danger to British security until the end of the nineteenth century when it was replaced by Germany” (215-16). Of course, there is mention of Graham Greene (1904-91) and his use of the thriller genre and how he “sometimes loads it with a weight of meaning that is too great for the form to bear” (Symons 222). After Bulldog Drummond he goes on to discuss the more current Eric Amber, Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, Anthony Price; and the adventure novels of Dick Francis, Gavin Lyall and Lionel Davidson.

In the 1972 edition of Bloody Murder, Symons made a few predictions regarding the crime novel genre. As he states, he attempted to “look into the crystal ball and predict the course of crime stories during the following ten years” (234). In the 1985 edition, he comments on how accurate those predictions were, that is, after the ten years had elapsed. In his concluding chapter, Symons states:

   There seems to me no doubt that since the end of the Second World War the crime
   story has interested more good writers than before, and that their approach has been
   more intelligent and varied, and their handling of criminal themes less trivial, than
   that of their Golden Age predecessors. Most crime writers produce too much, some
   exhaust their talent, but the best of the last decade shows that the vein still contains
   much gold (238).

I would like to point out that Mr. Symons (1912-1994) was a crime writer himself. Wikipedia has a long list of his works (novels, short stories, critiques, and biographies), most of which can still be purchased at your local used bookstore or favorite e-store.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel. Rev. Ed. England:
  Viking, 1985.

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder, Part 2

Julian Symons – Bloody Murder: From the detective story to the crime novel (1985 Rev. Ed.)
Part 2 of 3, by Stephen Randorf.

Mr. Symons, in Bloody Murder, outlines three Golden Ages. The first is that of Sherlock Holmes during the early 1900’s. This period was a boom for short stories as well as the beginning of the “Superman” type detective. I would like to mention here that one of Mr. Symons’s strong points, besides the long list of writers he familiarizes us with, is how he shows their interconnectedness, how each writer fits into the historic timeline of the crime writing genre.

With regard to the first Golden Age, Mr. Symons insightfully points out how the sprawling urbanization of London and the increase of daily commuters who wanted something other than long novels to read on their short train trips into the city, contributed to the popularity of the short story. These commuters soon came to prefer magazines with stories of a certain length, those whose reading-time would engage them for the duration of their commute, and could be concluded by the time they reached their destination (Symons 86). The Strand Magazine soon became available at the book stalls and supplied this need. Of course it contained the latest stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Would either the magazine or Sherlock Holmes have been as successful without the other? Probably, but that’s not how history works, the two were together and the success of one bred the success of the other.

The crime solving techniques of Sherlock Holmes put him in the category of the Superman detective “with no emotional attachments and little interest in everyday life” (Symons 74). He had two immediate successors: the American Jacques Futrelle (1875-1912) with his detective Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, known for The Thinking Machine (1907), which his character was; and the British G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Many of Mr. Futrelle short stories are available to sample at his website ( The odd fact about Mr. Futrelle is that he was on the Titanic when it went down. He was in mid-career as a writer at the time.

It was not only Mr. Doyle’s stories that appeared in The Strand Magazine. There were also the Max Carrados stories by Ernest Bramah (1868-1942), which some say were more popular than Sherlock Holmes. What made Mr. Bramah’s private investigator Max Carrados different? He was blind, a blind detective, as in Max Carrados (1914) and The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923).

And then there were the “Plain Man” detective stories, also in The Strand. As Symons says, these stories presented the detective more as a common man or “Plain Man” rather than a “Superman” (82). Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) featured such a “Plain Man” character, Martin Hewitt, in his stories published in The Strand Magazine. One such story was “The Stanway Cameo Mystery,” which Symons recommends (82). This story is also available at Project Gutenberg and can be found in the collection titled, Martin Hewitt, Investigator (1904). Another author who wrote in the same vein was M. McDonnell Bodkin (1850-1933), whose “Plain Man” character was Paul Beck. As Mr. Bodkin quotes his character, Paul Beck: “I just go by the rule of the thumb, and muddle and puzzle out my cases as best I can” (qtd. in Symons 82). Surely, not the “Superman” as was our Mr. Holmes.

If most of these references sound a bit British, it’s because they are. So let’s refresh ourselves with a few unfamiliar American names before we go on to another Golden Age. We have Anna Katharine Green (1846-1935), who is cited as the first woman in the US to write a detective novel. This was in 1878, The Leavenworth Case (Symons 60). I sampled a selection of her short stories and, considering they were written a hundred years ago, they too read well. I found the publication date of The Leavenworth Case of 1878 interesting since Doyle’s first Holmes story wasn’t published until 1887, although written the year before. Another American writer who dealt with crime and murder was Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). She found success and acclaim with her second novel, The Circular Staircase (1908). Symons pointed out that her stories had a set “pattern” with “the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts, and they exploited a market which, with the spread of library borrowing, proved very profitable” (89-90).

Soon after that, we have Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918) by Melville Davisson Post (1871-1930). These stories were set in pre-Civil War Virginia, and Symons claimed that their plots were “distinctly American,” which, as he says, would account for the lack of readership in the UK (Symons 81). To put these American writers in an historical timeline, we should remember that Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was not published until 1920.

I will skip over Hammett and Chandler, so much is written already. Symons deals with them under the chapter heading, “The American Revolution.” He also includes in this chapter James M. Cain (1892-1977), W. R. Burnett (1899-1982), Cornell Woolrich (1903-68), who Symons did not prefer because of the “continuous high-pitched whine of his prose” (129). Jonathan Latimer (1906-83) was also in this period. It was this “American revolution” with writers like Hammett and Chandler who “made the hard-boiled crime story respectable” and brought along a flurry of writers into the thirties (130).

With a brief interlude to discuss Georges Simenon’s “well rounded” Maigret (135), Symons quickly moved the narrative on to describe how the writers of another Golden Age, particularly those who were popular in the thirties, survived the changing times of the post-war period (WWI). How well did the characters Ellery Queen and Hercule Poirot do? Symons thought Agatha Christie adapted well to modern times. As he says, Agatha Christie did “better than most of her contemporaries” (140), and that “Poirot was intelligently modified” (140). And Margery Allingham’s (1904-66) well-bred Albert Campion? Symons thought that her detective, like the later Ellery Queen, “belonged to an earlier time and a different tradition” (141). He also found, in general, most of Ngaio Marsh’s (1899-1982) novels lacking because she “avoided emotional problems” of her characters (141).

Again, what I appreciate most in Symons’s Bloody Murder is his analysis. As he summarizes the new mood of the post-war period and the decline of the Superman detective, he states: “The attitude of the new writers were different. They wanted to combine popular entertainment with a study of ‘people and problems’, and often they felt that an investigator was out of place” (143).

Included in the chapter titled, “Crime Novel and Police Novel” he differentiates the two by setting up parallel columns to show how the main features (plot, method, clues, setting, etc.) vary between the two, the old and new (Symons 163). I’ve included a brief example of this:

     Characters              Characters

Only the detective is characterized    The basis of the story. The lives of
in detail. Otherwise characteriza-      characters are shown continuing
tion is perfunctory, particularly      after the crime, and often their
after the crime when people        subsequent behavior is important
become wholly subsidiary to plot.     to the story’s effect.

In this chapter, he also declares that Patricia Highsmith (1921- 95) as “the most important crime novelist at present in the practice” (165) and if you are not familiar with her, perhaps it is because “American critics . . . have been slow to recognize outstanding homegrown talents” (165).

To be continued.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf