torsdag den 22. februar 2024

The Last of the Mohicans - James Fenimore Cooper (1826)


The Last of the Mohicans

One of the most famous early American novels, “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper, helped paint a picture of the frontier that has lasted through the centuries. Although a contemporary audience typically will associate the American frontier with the prairie or the sunbaked southwest, there was a time before where the frontier was in the woods of New England.

Fort William Henry on the southern edge of Lake George in what is today the state of New York, is the host of a British detachment under the command of Colonel Munro. It is the year 1757 and the British and the French are at war. Rumor has it that the French are approaching with what may be superior numbers. At this very moment Munro’s daughters, Cora and Alice decide to pay their father a visit. Cora and Alice are escorted by Major Heyward and a singing master David Gamut. Their guide is an Indian named Magua.

On their way to Fort William Henry, they encounter the band of Hawkeye, the scout and the Mohicans Chingachgook and Uncas, father and son. They see Magua is up to something and takes control of the party. True enough, before long they are besieged by Magua and a band of Huron Indians, aligned with the French. Cora, Alice, Heyward and Gamut fall into the hands of Magua, but are eventually freed by the Hawkeye’s band just as the ritual torture was about to start.

Although the band arrives safely at Fort William Henry, the peace is short lived. The fort is attacked by the French and their Huron allies. Badly outnumbered and outgunned Munro is forced to surrender. Although granted free passage, the Hurons fall onto the train and massacres the women and the infirm. Cora and Alice are again captured by Magua. He is leading them north to his own tribe with sinister plans for the girls. Tracking him a few days behind, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Uncas, Heyward and Munro must catch up with Magua if they want to see the girls alive.

I read “The Last of the Mohicans” as a child and although I remember liking it, I quickly realized I had forgotten everything else. Poor memory is sometimes a blessing and it felt like a first read.

When “The Last of the Mohicans” is good, it is really good. This is especially the case in the chase scenes, whether the band is chasing Magua or being chased. There is a fast pace to these scenes and a level of detail just enough to keep me riveted and being able to visualize the chase. The chase across Lake George stands out in particular. Cooper was a good action writer.

Cooper is also good at writing on the wilderness itself. You get the feeling he has seen these places and has some experience with outback life, if not life on the Frontier itself. The skills of Hawkeye and the Mohicans are described in convincing detail, and I can imagine generations going out into the forest to emulate Chingachgook and Uncas with the book as their guide.

Cooper obviously have a lot of respect for the Native Americans, their skills and their culture and he deserves a lot of credit for that, yet he is also a product of his own time where racial differences were a very real and insurmountable barrier between people. The Indians are frequently called savages and not just the Hurons and you can hear the regret that these are just Indians and thus cut off from being something better. Hawkeye for all his praise and respect for his Indian friends must mention in every second sentence that he is a man without a cross, meaning pure white origin as if that somehow makes him a better person.

It is such a pity that Cooper does not dare to bridge the gulf. There may be some adherence here to the actual separation, also in the period of the narrative, but I sense that Cooper wants to bridge it. There is a budding romance between Uncas and Cora that would have been beautiful if it had been allowed to unfold, but Cooped seems afraid to go that far. Cooper also laments the fate and plight of the Indians, besieged and forced to make way for the whit people as they are. He places word in the mouth of some of the Indians that demonstrates his understanding, but he does not finish the step. Their fate is lamentable but it is just too bad, he seems to think.

The real problem with “The Last of the Mohicans” however is in the plot. As others before me have pointed out, Cora and Alice’ visit to their father is hopelessly unmotivated and ill-timed, but without it, there would be no story. The same with the singing master Gamut, his presence is unexplained, and he has not function but comic relief except he is not funny at all. While these may be the most glaring plot holes, there are numerous decisions and actions throughout the story that feel contrived or unmotivated but the only thing I can do as a reader is to just to accept and flow with it.

If you take into account that Cooper was not a modern writer, nor a contemporary writer of the times he writes about, he did do an amazing job with “The Last of the Mohicans” and the millions of readers worldwide are testament to that. Wikipedia lists 11 different movie or serial versions of the story in a addition to a number of German versions of the story! I am dying to see Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook in Der Letzte Mohikaner from 1920!


lørdag den 20. januar 2024

Life of a Good-For-Nothing - Joseph Von Eichendorff (1826)


Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing

Lately, the books on the List have been having a dark streak with the possible exception of “Tomcat Murr”, though even that had some sinister sides. “Memoirs of a Good-for-Nothing” (“Memoirs…”) is the direct opposite. It is light and easy in every sense.

A (very?) young man leaves his village carrying only the cloth he wears and his fiddle. He gets a ride with two ladies and plays for them so nicely that they offer him a job in the palace gardens. Soon he is even promoted to be a tollkeeper. The young man, whose name we never learn is hopelessly in love with one of the ladies, whom he keeps referring to a “my lovely lady”, but as he assumes she is a countess, he never approaches her. Instead, he plays his fiddle and put flowers for her wherever he can.

One night he discovers that the other lady is the one looking for him and that his own “lovely lady” is together with another man and his hope shatters. He immediately embarks on a journey to Italy, gets kidnapped by bandits, are taken to a castle in the mountains, where he is treated as a lord, barely escapes and hang out in Rome. In Rome he thinks he has found his girl again and indeed he is told she is looking for him, only to find out she already left for Austria, so now he needs to get back home and find her there.

The conclusion, which I shall not reveal here, includes so many revelations and mistaken identities that I am entirely confused myself, but, happy ending, the end.

This is super light and super short, 120 easy pages, and anything that resembles a crisis is resolved within a page or two. Our hero is never really in any danger, or rather, no danger he cannot easily escape from, and he usually gets by simply by playing some music. People are really nice to him and those that are not, are just pretending. Meanwhile, the sun is always shining, people are happy and well-fed and dancing is only just one song away. It actually sounds very much like a Hollywood golden age musical.

It is so brief, rushed and light that I cannot really say it made a lot of impression on me. It is like a piece of candy, nice and sweet and gone in minutes. It is difficult to be upset with it because it is so harmless, but at the same time, the novel feels more like a synopsis of a much larger and deeper book. My guess is that I will have forgotten about it in a few weeks.

Yet, this tiny novel is praised as a masterpiece of late German Romanticism and apparently it presents a lot of elements hailed as typical of this movement. Classless love, the freedom, the appreciation of beauty, both natural and human made such as music and painting. Eichendorff was a celebrated poet, and a lot of his poems are included in the book, though I am not qualified to tell if the appreciation is deserved.

I suppose it is nice to also get some lighter and happier fare than the gloomy stuff of late but there is simply not enough meat on this for me to truly recommend it.

tirsdag den 9. januar 2024

Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner - James Hogg (1824)


Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

This is a case of a novel that is more interesting from a technical point of view than from its subject matter. Not that this is entirely uninteresting, but the technical devices of “Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner” (or “Confessions…” as I will shorten it to from now on) are both very advanced for its time and used in a very interesting manner and this alone is good enough reason to read it.

“Confessions…” is divided into three segments. The first is “the editor’s” description of events that happened a little more than a hundred years in the past. A Scottish nobleman was briefly married to a fiercely religious woman and managed to have two sons before she moved out to live with her priest, the Reverend Wringhim. George, the older stayed with the nobleman, while the younger, Robert stayed with the mother. Though never explicitly stated, it is implied that the Reverend is the actual father of Robert, though for such religious people that would be absolutely unheard of.

George and his father are jovial types and George is well liked and described as a fairly ordinary young nobleman. Robert, on the other hand, is a dark, brooding type and very religious. During a game of tennis, he seeks out George and starts interfering in everything George does, presumably to convince him to see the light. Eventually George is murdered. His father’s housekeeper investigates and eventually finds out Robert did it after which Robert disappears.

The second part takes the form of a found manuscript written by Robert. It essentially tells the same story, but instead of the third-party objectiveness of the first section, this is a highly subjective first-person account and as such dramatically different. For once, Robert is not only deeply religious, he is also righteous and convinced that he is among the elect who can do no wrong because they are already admitted to heaven. This gives him a free ticket to do whatever he wants and a conviction that whatever he believes is correct and everybody else is wrong.

Robert also meets early on a person who never really introduces himself, but acts as Robert’s friend and supporter. Together they hatch a plan to eliminate people who are in the way of the true faith and start off with a minister. Successfully done, George is the next on the list. The impetus for these murders seems to be from Robert’s friend and he does seem to have uncanny abilities such as assuming the voice and looks of other people. Slowly it is implied that this friend is some sort of demon or devil haunting Robert and when Robert starts to suffer lapses in memory after which it appears he has been conducting unspeakable crimes, he has to flee. Not only the law, but also his supernatural friend.

The third part is again the editor explaining how he found the manuscript in a grave, somehow giving credence to the story as a “found manuscript”.

The technique of telling a story from two different perspectives is novel in the early nineteenth century and is particularly interesting because it highlights the unreliable narrator. Who do we trust more, the impartial third-party narrator with limited access to the details or the first person narrator with full access but also personally invested in the story? Not to mention, severely religiously biased.

Then of course there is the almost satirical portrait of a person so convinced of his religious doctrines that his views, actions and morality are far outside what we would consider the norm, even in a more religious age than today. I suspect this is the real agenda of the author and it certainly does make these cultist types highly suspicious. Most dangerous seems to be how completely impervious they are to other opinions and common sense. This is something that can frustrate even in our current day and age.

In my opinion, however, the most interesting element is that of the demon. With twenty-first century glasses on, Robert is schizophrenic and suffering from a split personality. An invented friend that feeds him with subconscious impulses he might otherwise have suppressed and leaves him with blank periods in his memory are typical schizophrenic symptoms. Though for an author in the early nineteenth century to describe a schizophrenic case sounds unlikely. Psychiatry was not that developed at the time, but we are really close here. The other possibility is the religious one that this pious type is haunted and corrupted by the devil and simply fails to recognize it because hellish and strict orthodox dogma are so very similar. In this understanding, Robert is suitably punished for his religious intolerance and arrogance. This is far more down the line of a nineteenth century writer and, of course, supporting the satirical agenda, but I cannot help reading a mental patient case story into this and that ambivalence is super interesting. Maybe it is implied that demonic intervention is causing schizophrenia?

“Confessions..” could easily be made into a horror movie today and I would not be surprised to learn this has already happened. Wikipedia mentions a Polish movie and several screenplays, but the big Hollywood production seems to be pending.

Apparently, it was the inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and I can definitely see that.

Certainly, an interesting read.