Tuesday, May 27, 2008

cookez-vous pronto!

Some people (including my dad and Simon Guerrier, apparently), upon finding an author they like, read all that author’s works one after the other. If possible, I prefer to read more eclectically. I like mixing up my genres and like switching between fiction and nonfiction. (I’ve mentioned before that I am reading one Patrick O’Brian book a year, and while I’ve made significant headway with Rafael Sabatini, there’s still quite a bit of his oeuvre I haven’t touched.) This is why I followed Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End with Percival Christopher Wren’s Beau Geste.

Clarke was an incredibly brilliant man and wrote science fiction which is unlike any other I’ve read. I have to admit, the prologue to Childhood’s End seemed unwieldy and subsequent chapters a bit stiff. Nevertheless, his ideas are amazing in their scope. I can only think of one person, Tolkien, whose imagination was large enough and erudite enough to create an entire world populated by so many different classes of characters and to move between hundreds of years in this world’s creation, with seeming effortlessness. Clarke’s imagination is large enough to encompass not only hundreds of years in Earth’s lifetime, but unimaginably large amounts of space and time in the lives of aliens. Childhood’s End is revelatory and well-nigh impossible to predict. Therefore, I won’t say anything about the plot. Just read it yourself, and I will find more of his books in the future for my own edification.

Much more down-to-earth is P. Christopher Wren’s Beau Geste, which would seem on the surface to resemble his contemporary Sabatini’s adventure books (ostensibly for boys, I gather). Wren is a bit of a shady character who doesn’t need to list his resources for the historical tale, simply because (it is generally believed) he had first-hand knowledge. Wren’s books both romanticized and made reality the French Foreign Legion about which, it must be admitted, I knew nothing before Beau Geste. Behind the guise of a jolly adventure enacted by the three Geste boys, of aristocratic blood but dependent on the charity of their relatives, we actually have a narrative full of grimness and death. The narrative devices for telling the tale are strange: the first part consists of a tall tale told by the irrepressibly French Major de Beaujolais to his English counterpart, George Lawrence. The tale is well-worth the unorthodoxy because it is a mystery worthy of Gaston Leroux’s Yellow Room.

When the second half of the mystery, the disappearance of a jewel called “the Blue Water” from an English drawing room, is related to us by young John Geste, we are drawn in completely. There are romantic love stories, portrayed both between Lawrence and the Gestes’ aunt Patricia, and between John and his cousin Isobel. But the main love story is between the brothers and their comrades. The Foreign Legion is, as Obi-Wan would say, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” but there are also honorable men, unafraid to do their duty though it costs them their lives. Most amusing is the inclusion of two Americans from the Texas Rangers, Buddy and Hank, who are among the funniest and the most admirable characters in the book. They’re both caricatures and entirely believable. “Ses you suffers from oneasy self-insertion, Hank,” went on the little man. “Ain’t inserted nawthen today, Buddy,” replied the giant mildly.

It was curious to read Beau Geste and its pro-gallantry message in the light of “Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood,” though I do think John Smith and the Gestes and co. would get along pretty well. The evocation of North African desert as extremely unpleasant, full of cutthroats and cheap wine, is extremely vivid. And much is made of the state of cafard, literally cockroach, which signifies going mad under the extreme conditions of the desert. There’s a bit of Camus in this, a bit of the Tom Russell song “Blood Oranges.
What will I read next? Wait and see.

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