Three Classics:

Since I am still trying to catch up on my reviews and I’ve read Catcher in the Rye, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe I’ll be reviewing them in one piece.  I’ve read three more books since then and it’s easier to read on the train and harder to write. First, there’s not much original to say about these works, I can only add my own opinion.


Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger:

This has been considered a classic simply for the way Salinger addresses mental illness in the late ’40s, early 50’s.  It’s a different type of classic now because the story has been corrupted by our culture of violence.  A teenager reading this for the first time will be disappointed there is no bloodshed, no sex, no ‘excitement’.  The first person narrative seems destined to erupt into some horror of depravity and despair.  The cataclysm never arrives because it would be completely beyond the pale for the author.

Salinger’s daring lies in the internal conversation Holden carries on, gaining momentum as he emotionally staggers from pillar to pillar attempting to right himself internally.  His body, however, is at the mercy of his mind.  As he reaches out to friends and strangers alike, his paranoia builds in intensity, until he rejects even his own beloved younger sister. Salinger, masterfully employs a fugue state as Caulfield collapses, and then re-emerges in the present tense.

Mental illness is no longer a subject to be spurned.  Today, pretty much everyone believes they suffer from some form of mental illness, if for no other reason than to escape responsibility for their behavior.    It’s clear in the initial and final paragraphs, Holden doesn’t know what events are true and what is his attempt at reconstruction.  Salinger’s protagonist, doesn’t deny responsibility, he simply states matters as he knows them, leaving the rest for the reader and the novel’s internal audience.  Salinger sums this up in an intimate fashion. There isn’t the wholesale slaughter of innocents many have come to expect in fiction, and maybe that’s just the point.


Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

I’ve heard it doesn’t really count unless you read Chaucer in the original English.  To be quite honest, I didn’t read Don Quioxte in Spanish, Inferno in Italian, nor Crime and Punishment in Russian.  (Speaking of being in Hell, with a hopeless romantic as Punishment for your Crimes…Oy.)  But they’ve enriched me just the same.

I’m not sure Chaucer would enrich me in any language, but it’s an interesting concept for storytelling.   Figure this:  you have a collection of short stories with nothing in common.  Some aren’t even very good, but you want to get them out there.  Self-publishing is in its antiquity, (Anyone can publish anything with any amount of money.)  Chaucer thinks if he can just get this one work off the ground, his more ambitious efforts will follow.  I’m not sure what constitutes a bestseller in the days of yore, but none of his other efforts seem to have stood the test of time with the exception of Troilus and Cressida. I will probably not chase it down for the sheer pleasure of saying I’ve read more Chaucer than just Canterbury Tales.  Yes. Back to the Tales. We have bawdiness, gallantry, romance, and adventure. We have a narrator who spends more time blabbing about who these people are than the actual telling of the tales.  Ok, fine, it’s a classic. I was bored to tears.  Hoping the next story would be better is the only thing that got me through this.


Short Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Volume 2:

Poe wrote more than just horror stories, and this collection samples that variety. There are some of his more famous works, the Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Cask of Amontillado. But there are lesser-known works, some of which are not horror at all.  A couple of them almost sound like travelogues for places that exist solely in his imagination. Some of this work is used for place-setting in other stories.

The editors of this collection showcase a couple of themes running through Poe’s work.  Not only do we see the intricate detail of place and time being developed, we see themes of mental illness, unrequited love (frequently of a close relative) and the destroying nature of guilt.  More than one of his stories is built on the premise that the remains of the victim prey so harshly on the mind of the murderer he gives up his guilt rather than live with the accusation. (The Tell-Tale Heart is one example; in another the narrator becomes so flustered he betrays himself to the police.)  These are stories we’ve read and heard about most of our educational lives.  Reading them again with a blind eye to previous experience, enables us to feel again the incipient loss of hope as the walls close around us in The Pit and the Pendulum, as well as the emerging terror of our actions in Berenice.

Reading Poe can be hard work. His prose is dense and filled with complex descriptions.  His narratives tend to exist in the mind of the speaker. Little external dialogue results in a sense of isolation, and nervous anxiety.  The underlying menace becomes singularly suffocating as you can no more escape his thoughts than he can.