Who are these “obviously greater writers” that couldn’t do what Agatha Christie did? I’m sorry to say it, but reading Henry James is a snooze-a-thon and Joyce Carol Oates never figured out how to finish a story. Just to drop two big names: I don’t read much Serious Mainstream Litterature.
Real classics don’t need literary critics to keep them alive. Ask any ten-year-old whose imagination was set on fire by Homer’s Odyssey.
I know, I know–none of these has ever been called Serious Mainstream Literature. You’d never catch Tolstoy writing about celebrity spiders; and Jane Austen wasn’t big on lost cities inhabited by maniacs.
But these are the authors I’ve learned from, and these are the authors whose works I love–and return to again and again.
You wouldn’t think I could get into much trouble, reading a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery by Dorothy L. Sayers. The one I’m reading now is Gaudy Night, set at a women’s college in Oxford. It’s important to remember, at all times, that this was published in 1936.
Consider this bit of conversation. One character, opposed to capital punishment, says murderers must be “kept from doing further harm. But they ought not to be punished and they certainly ought not to be killed.”
To which one of her fellow academics replies, “I suppose they ought to be kept in hospitals at vast expense, along with other unfit specimens… Speaking as a biologist, I must say I think public money might be better employed. What with the number of imbeciles and physical wrecks we allow to go about and propagate their species, we shall end by devitalizing whole nations.”
“Miss Schuster-Slatt [an American] would advocate sterilization,” said the Dean.
“They’re trying it in Germany, I believe,” said Miss Edwards [the biologist]. ****
Hello? Did someone invite Heinrich Himmler to give a series of guest lectures at this college?
Well, no. They were just talkin’ eugenics, which was Settled Science once upon a time, between the world wars. The West–primarily Britain and America–was talkin’ it, and passing laws against reproduction by “the unfit”; but in Nazi Germany they shifted eugenics into high gear and started killing people. After all, it’s a sure way of getting rid of the unfit.
And Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood, to get rid of the unfit by means of abortion.
So we had all this Nazi stuff floating around in our culture, believed in by the best and smartest people, no one dared venture into Eugenics Denial for fear of being mocked and cast out of polite society.
A lot of people shut up about eugenics after it became well known how the Nazis put it to work. The word “eugenics” fell out of use. Nobody wanted to sound like Himmler.
But it was there–respected, exalted, socially acceptable, absolutely a part of our culture. In Gaudy Night we see it in Britain in 1936, before the Nazis started bombing London.
We see it even more vividly in Agatha Christie’s Curtain, written during World War II but not published till 1975. The ideas most commonly associated with the Third Reich were deemed respectable in Britain–even while the Germans were attacking and it was an open question whether Britain would survive.
The evils of our own day have deep roots. Very deep indeed.
This is what happens in a country where the teachers’ unions don’t bankroll a major political party. Kids like little Agatha slip through the cracks. They wind up spending altogether too much time with their parents and knowing hardly anything about the joys of socialism.
One is always working to refine one’s technique. But one thing hasn’t changed: if you want to be a writer, you still have to listen to other writers. Agatha Christie and Edgar Rice Burroughs are still there to back me up.
Anyway, after seven years of working at it constantly, my literary voice is more my own, and mine only, and someday maybe new writers will try to learn from me.
We hadn’t seen this movie in several years, so we watched it the other day and it was just as wonderful as ever.
It isn’t always easy to get an all-star cast to work together, but in Death on the Nile, the stars are out in force. What a cast! Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, supported by David Niven, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Lois Chiles, Maggie Smith, Simon MacCorkindale, Jack Warden, Olivia Hussey–whew! With Angela Lansbury, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of an alcoholic romance writer who’s seen better days. Fantastic performances all around.
And if you like movies with lavish sets, exotic locations, and a plot that twists and turns all over the place–well, this one’s for you. Want escape? This film’s got it. For 140 minutes, you’re out of here. Much, much better than the David Suchet remake.
In a little while, we’re going to follow our New Year’s custom of watching George Pal’s 1960 classic, The Time Machine. Followed by Patty’s heavenly pork casserole for supper.
The sun has come out, unexpectedly, so I have to seize the moment and get out there with my legal pad, to continue my work on Bell Mountain No. 12, His Mercy Endureth Forever. Unlike Agatha Christie, pictured above, I can’t write fiction indoors. As I write, I have to try to inhabit a world that doesn’t, in fact, exist; and I can’t do that if I keep getting robo-calls from “Your Debt Partner” and various resorts that try to convince me that I’ve been there before and really liked it.
We have a black walnut tree in the yard which day and night bombards us with nuts the size of baseballs. Thanks to the incessant rain, the nuts have begun to rot while still on the tree. A lot of them go “splat!” instead of “pow!” when they hit the ground: icky black goo all over the place. But even that is less distracting than the robo-calls.
I still don’t have the climax to this story, still waiting for the Lord to show it to me. I feel like I’m chipping away at a great block of marble to get at the shape that waits inside, with no idea of what that shape will be. Your guess is as good as mine. Suffice it to say that currently hellzapoppin in Obann.
Well, back to work! I hope the nuts keep missing me: a few of them this morning were… adjacent.