So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

McWhinney's Jaunt

McWhinney's Jaunt is a travel adventure delightfully illustrated by the author Robert Lawson with pen and ink drawings. It tells of an absent-minded professor who develops a "hitherto unknown gas having tremendous lifting power" that he names Z-Gas and uses to fill the tires of his bicycle. He finds that the weight of his body counterbalances the buoyancy of the tires, and he can rise in the air by "leaning back in the saddle and peddling briskly." Since the university is on summer break and his wife had taken up needlepoint, he decides to ride his modified bicycle to Hollywood, where he feels it will "earn him an engagement in the motion pictures more remunerative" than his professorship.
Professor McWhinney sells some of his Z-Gas to a carnival ballon vendor for $50 to fund his trip. There is a drawing of the vendor holding on to about 3 dozen balloons and floating into the air over a grocery store "drifting slowly in a southeasterly direction." With his finances set and the baskets of his bike filled with a few necessities, he takes off the next morning down a well-known Connecticut parkway to cross the George Washington Bridge on the supporting cables of the suspension bridge.
Across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri he rides, earning more money in a bicycle race along the way. Travelling through the midwest and Oklahoma, he heads for the Grand Canyon where he earns some more money with his trick bicycle. His arrival in California is less than a success as the Hollywood producers are not impressed by his amazing bicycle. "In this realm of fantasy they could see nothing especially unusual about it."
On his way home, McWhinney visits the Boulder Dam and Yellowstone Park. Illustrations of McWhinney and his unusual bicycle set against national landmarks make up the heart of this book, but the character of this odd professor and his unusual approach toward life are what bring it to life.
Jim Vadeboncoeur Jr. tells a wonderful tale about this being the first illustrated book he remembers reading in his Illustrators website entry for Robert Lawson. I myself had a similar experience, and went through many years of my life wondering about the book, until I rediscovered it a few years ago. Originally published in 1951 with a paperback re-issue in 1979 by Little, Brown & Co., McWhinney's Jaunt is now again available in a hardcover edition from Oxford City Press. While I have not seen the new edition, I treasure my 1951 copy.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fruitfulness by Emile Zola

Fruitfulness by Emile Zola

Emile Zola was a novelist as famous in France as his contemporary Charles Dickens was in the UK. He wrote novels about how social conditions, heredity, and environment were inescapable forces in shaping human character. He called this Naturalism, and his first major work, Thérèse Raquin, written in this style, was a major success. Encouraged, Zola launched into the major project of his life, the 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series, which traced members of a family through 4 generations and made him well-off and famous.

In 1898 Zola risked his literary career by defending a wrongly-accused Jewish military officer named Dreyfus in a famous essay ”J’accuse” that appeared on the front page of the Paris daily newspaper L’Aurore. The Dreyfus affair divided France deeply between the reactionary army and church and a liberal working class. Zola had to flee to England to avoid jail himself.

It is in England that Zola decided to write a new gospel for the modern world consisting of four novels:

Fruitfulness (1899) - a pro-birth statement about "the eternal battle which life wages against death."

Labour (1901) - a Socialist re-evaluation of work and capital

Truth (1903, published posthumously) - about Jewish scapegoating and anti-Semitism
Justice (unfinished)

He meant this utopian series to replace the original four gospels of a corrupt Christianity, and to be the natural conclusion to all his previous work. On September 29th, 1902, as the third book Truth was about to be serialized in L’Aurore, a Parisian roofer stuffed up Zola’s chimney pipe as he slept, and he was killed by carbon monoxide poisoning. He kept his bedroom windows shut tight and the door locked because he had received many death threats. Although there were rumors that he was murdered, the coroner ruled it death by natural causes, and it was not until 1953 that the true story was told. The roofer's deathbed confession in 1927, stating that the chimney had deliberately blocked then unblocked the next day, went unreported for over 25 years. This final series is not well-known. Yet it appears to be the body of work that got him killed.

Fruitfulness was written while Zola was in exile in England, being hidden by his translator E. A. Vizetelly. In the Translator's Preface, Zola is quoted: "Fruitfulness creates the home. Thence springs the city. From the idea of citizenship comes the fatherland; and love of country, in minds fed by science, leads to the conception of a wider and vaster fatherland, comprising all the peoples of the earth. Of these three stages in the progress of mankind, the fourth still remains to be attained." It was written to address a problem of population stagnation confronting France at the time where the middle class was limiting themselves to one child, and the lower classes couldn't afford to raise children. Today this problem of fertility and birth has been taken up by religious conservatives and is as contentious as it was in Zola's time. He writes of Mathieu and Marianne Froment who, in the face of a society that frowns on large families, proceeds to have a dozen children. As the people around him limit themselves to one or, at most, two children, the Froments throw themselves exuberantly into the flow of Life. Others are sending their unwanted children to the country where they are neglected and die, or having abortions or hysterectomies to prevent further birth.

Beware in reading Vizetelly's translation that he felt that he could not write a publishable translation in England, and only agreed to the job after "recasting some portion of it and sacrificing those matters of form to which exception was taken." As a result we have a book where abortion is only hinted at, and the sexual act is absent. Mathieu and Marianne kiss often and fervently. The one part of fruitfulness that shines forth is the flowing milk of Marianne's breasts that nurture the 12 children who suck at them. This is contrasted with wet nurses who starve children sent to them for care.

This book's simplistic promotion of Fruitfulness and trust in Nature is based on Zola's conception of Science, and is difficult to fit into modern thoughts on this issue. I found it both disturbing and thought-provoking. The Turn of the Century was a time of male, political and racial bias. Even great writers like Zola are a product of their times and it is easy to point out the sexism, racism and colonialist biases of this book. However his underlying faith in Love and Nature is still inspirational.