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Reviews by Jim Paris

The Man of Feeling

by Henry Mackenzie

In 18th century England, and to a similar extent in Western Europe, there was a literature of Sensibility in which characters attempted to live a highly moral life while at the same time freely showing their emotions, especially when giving in to tears. One of the classics of this sensibility was the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, which looked at the life of a thoroughly likeable young man who, although not the sharpest tack in the box, submitted to his most generous impulses on all occasions. Even when his health is giving way, he opines:

There is a certain dignity in retiring from life at a time, when the infirmities of age have not sapped our faculties. This world, my dear Charles, was a scene in which I never much delighted. I was not formed for the bustle of the busy, nor the dissipation of the gay; a thousand things occurred, where I blushed for the impropriety of my conduct when I thought on the world, though my reason told me I should have blushed to have done otherwise. - It was a scene of dissimulation, of restraint, of disappointment. I leave it to enter on that state which I have learned to believe is replete with the genuine happiness attendant upon virtue. I look back on the tenor of my life, with the consciousness of few great offences to account for. There are blemishes, I confess, which deform in some degree the picture. But I know the benignity of the Supreme Being, and rejoice at the thoughts of its exertion in my favour. My mind expands at the thought I shall enter into the society of the blessed, wise as angels, with the simplicity of children.

Although we do not tend to value such emotions today, they were a fresh discovery to our ancestors after all the snuff and lace cuffs of the Age of Reason. It also resulted in such wonderful books as Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, Sterne's Sentimental Journey, and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."

Reviewed on 2012.01.19

The Sea and the Jungle

by Henry Major Tomlinson

The travel gene is dominant in my make-up. (That's what comes of having been born in Cleveland.) I had heard of this book for decades: When I saw it on the shelf in the Santa Monica Public Library, I picked it up and checked it out. It took about three pages for me to get totally hooked, and that despite Evan S. Connell's warning about a possible "dilatory exposition and a sauntering digressiveness." Warnings like that, I take as a challenge.

The Sea and the Jungle is the story of H. M. Tomlinson's voyage from Swansea in Wales to Porto Velho, a thousand miles up the Amazon and its tributaries, close to the Bolivian border, in 1909-1910. There, a railroad was being built to ... somewhere or other, if it was ever finished. It was not long into the book before I had the very unusual feeling that I wanted to start reading it again -- more slowly -- and savoring every word. There was something about Tomlinson's way of seeing things, as a rank amateur who knew how to describe both what he saw and how he felt about it. About his first few days at sea, he writes:

For as to the sea itself, love it you cannot. Why should you? I will never believe again that the sea was ever loved by anyone whose life was married to it. It is the creation of Omnipotence, which is not of human kind and understandable, and so the springs of its behavior are hidden. The sea does not assume its royal blue to please you. Its brute and dark desolation is not raised to overwhelm you, you disappear then because you happen to be there. It carries the lucky foolish to fortune, and drags the calculating wise to the strewn bones.

This is a different point of view from Joseph Conrad's, as he was a seasoned pro who had seen the sea in all its moods. Tomlinson, on the other hand, was a talented amateur who saw quickly to the heart of things.

There is a comparison that can be made with The Heart of Darkness and its colonial "pilgrims": The same types are to be seen in Porto Velho and the surrounding camps. They have come to throw their lives away in search of some remote commercial gain. Tomlinson tells the tale of a man who is plunked by a company in the middle of nowhere, to be placed in charge of a pack of sick slaves by a jetty on the Madeira River:

An unknown Somebody in Wall Street or Park Lane has an idea, and this is what it does. The potent impulse! It moves the men who don't know the language of New York and London down to this desolation. It begins to ferment the place. The fructifying thought! Have you seen the graveyard here? We've got a fine cemetery, and it grows well. Still, this railway will get done. Yes, people who don't know what it's for, they'll make a little of it, and die, and more who don't know what it's for, and won't use it when it's made, they'll finish it. This line will get its freights of precious rubber moving down to replenish the motor tyres of civilisation, and the chap who had the bright idea, but never saw this place, and couldn't live here a week, or shovel dirt, or lay a track, and wouldn't know raw rubber if he saw it, he'll score again. Progress, progress! The wilderness blossoms as the rose. It's wonderful, isn't it?

The tale of the poor sap who winds up in the jungle takes up Chapter IV and is, in many ways, the heart of the book.

One thing I know for sure, however much I love strange new places, I will take a pass on the jungle. I wouldn't mind the Atlantic near as much -- but those insects, those tropical diseases and strange fevers. No, I'll take a pass on them. But I thank Tomlinson for seeing the jungle clearly, with its effect on the legions of Americans, Europeans, and Brazilians who were caught up in its grips. Today Porto Velho is a large city, and much of the jungle has been chopped down to make room for other dreams of empire.

No sooner did I finish reading this book than I ordered a copy for my library. Something this good deserves another look.

Reviewed on 2011.06.30

The Muse of the Department

by Honoré de Balzac

As I am reading all of Balzac's work with the Yahoo! Balzac group, I want to use this review to discuss the dream life of a Frenchman of the 1830s and 1840s. Like many males in whatever time or place, the French author saw himself -- ideally -- as rich, famous, with occult powers (witness The Thirteen and Louis Lambert), and, above all, admired by beautiful young women who flocked around him and surrendered to his every whim. Just as the Marquis de Sade in the 120 Days of Sodom imagined from his solitary cell in the Bastille an infinite number of masturbatory permutations of the sex act ... and just as Henry Miller in The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn imagined far more bedmates than he ever enjoyed ... so Balzac wanted to use his work to imagine what it would be like to be King of the Mountain in his dreams.

There were times, however, when Balzac realized the tawdriness of some of his boyhood dreams; and The Muse of the Department is a good example. Journalist Etienne Lousteau visits the provincial city of Sancerre and initiates an affair with a young married woman, Dinah de la Baudraye. Lousteau returns to Paris, but Dinah leaves her husband and follows him, quite pregnant. While Lousteau's career (and relationship) loses some of its luster, Dinah helps Lousteau with his writing and tries to make the relationship work -- but to no avail.

Her husband de la Baudraye has been busy in the meantime getting filthy rich and honored with a title of nobility from the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe. He offers to accept Dinah back, acknowledge her children as his own, and give up some of his miserly ways -- especially since now he can afford it. So Dinah leaves Lousteau who sinks slowly from his dissipated ways. In the end, she lends him 6,000 francs to pay his debts, but we know that Lousteau will continue to incur new debts because he will never change his ways.

Balzac is not always so mature in his discussion of women. Dinah misses the bohemian life with the journalist, but Lousteau's nostalgie de la boue is too strong for her to stomach.

Reviewed on 2011.03.28

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