Classical Anna: Wuthering Heights

January 23, 2010

When Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” was published in 1847, the literary community reacted with such outrage that her sister Charlotte had to defend her from accusations of lewdness, callousness and impropriety. Few books have made such a stark break from conventions of the time: Brontë, a single, reclusive woman in her twenties from the English countryside, essentially raised a middle finger to all of Victorian literature, presenting a book that follows its own structure and puts forth a violent, amoral vision of the world.

Emily, along with sisters and fellow authors Charlotte and Anne, lived her life on the harsh Yorkshire moors, and it is upon this landscape that the entirety of the novel is contained.  Catherine Earnshaw and her adopted gypsy brother Heathcliff live in Wuthering Heights and share a deep bond as children; however, this connection is tested when Catherine comes in contact with Edgar Linton, the son of the wealthy family of Thrusscross Grange across the moors, and becomes torn between her marital ambitions and her attachment to Heathcliff. Heathcliff sees Cathy’s flirtation with Edgar and runs away, returning after her marriage as a wealthy gentleman full of anger and bitterness. He spends the remainder of the book attempting to destroy the Earnshaw and Linton families and their progeny, as revenge for parting him from Cathy.

While the book concerns the familiar trope of star-crossed lovers, it has no need for the devices of other Victorian novels. There is no blanching, rosy-cheeked heroine, nor an earnest young hero to woo her. Instead, Cathy and Heathcliff are shockingly nasty: physically violent, emotionally unfiltered, without compassion for the weak or needy. As a teenager, in front of the courting Edgar Linton, Cathy slaps a maid with “a stinging blow that filled both eyes with water” and then vents her temper on her young nephew:

“She seized his shoulders, and shook him till the poor child waxed livid, and Edgar thoughtlessly laid hold of her hand to deliver him. In an instant one was wrung free, and the astonished young man felt it applied over his own ear in a way that could not be mistaken for jest.”

Heathcliff is similarly abusive, degrading those around him to little more than objects. When he learns that Edgar’s sister, Isabella, harbors feelings for him he stares at her

“as one might do at a strange repulsive animal, a centipede from the Indies, for instance, which curiosity leads one to examine in spite of the aversion it raises.”

These characters were understandably repellent to readers of the time, and even prove to be a bit difficult for modern readers to swallow, despite the growing culture of antiheroes in literature. Indeed, most readers will likely call their sanity into question.

“Wuthering Heights” presents an animalistic morality, as opposed to the domestic, Christian values of most Victorian novels. For all the talk of the Bible and the Devil, impersonal nature is more powerful than God; the strong dominate over the weak, and when they do die they chose to take their own lives. Self-preservation is valued: even Nelly, the figure of traditional morality and Christian values, conceals important information from her master so she won’t get in trouble, much to the detriment of other characters. At one point, she comments in a frighteningly pragmatic tone,

“We must be for ourselves in the long run; the mild and generous are only more justly selfish than the domineering.”

Moreover, Emily Brontë breaks the conventions of Victorian literature by filtering the narrative of the story through two voices: the primary speaker is Lockwood, a womanizer from London renting Thrushcross Grange, who conveys the tale of Wuthering Heights as told to him by Nelly, a witness to all events. If one takes their narration at face value (as Bronte’s first readers no doubt did, unused to such narrative tricks), a modern reader will be transported into a Gothic romance of passion and insanity, and appreciate it as a scandalous ghost-story of the Victorian era.

However, if one delves beneath the literal narration, a deeper story about the power of human bonds revels itself. Brontë places clues throughout the novel alerting the reader that perhaps Nelly’s tale shouldn’t be taken at face value: though she is faithfully relaying the events to which she was privy, it becomes clear that she doesn’t understand them. Not only is she quite gullible (many of the more tragic events of the book occur because characters can so easily pass things over on her), but she seems uncomprehending of passionate, deep-seated emotions. When Cathy explains her bond with Heathcliff to Nelly, revealing that she believes they are literally the same soul – speaking the famous line “I am Heathcliff” – an appalled Nelly wants to hear no more. She likewise is confused by Heathcliff’s torment at losing the one person in the world who understood him.

When readers pay attention to the language Nelly ignores, they see that Cathy and Heathcliff are about far more than crazed lust and possession. Instead, they are trying to return to their inseparable childhood bond obliterated by adulthood and reality by breaking down any barriers that divide them: houses, people, skin, coffin walls, and finally the membrane between life and death.

Despite all these innovations and sly tricks, “Wuthering Heights” cannot escape the archaic language of typical Victorian novels, and this may be a barrier for many modern readers. The proclamations of love are laid on thick – “Oh Cathy! Oh my life!” cries Heathcliff – and people speak in exaggerated detail. However, as with Shakespeare or Austen, most readers will adjust to the language after several pages. Prospective readers are also advised to buy an addition with a mapped out genealogy included, as the family tree becomes very confusing as it moves down to the second generation of Lintons and Earnshaws, and Emily’s penchant for recycling names gives the reader more than one Cathy and Linton.

Emily died just one year after the publication of “Wuthering Heights,” succumbing to tuberculosis and, like her hero and heroine, starving herself to speed up the process of death.  Though she lived her life in the shadows, she left behind her a blazing beast of a book that continues to electrify over one-hundred and fifty years later.


Text-to-Screen Ratio: Sherlock Holmes

January 13, 2010

While as a critic of literature I try to treat most books with a neutral eye, even I am not immune to stubborn passions. There are things in literature I love unconditionally, and at the top of that list is the Sherlock Holmes canon. The reasons are varied and would take more time than I have, but suffice to say I consider the Holmes short stories the finest things ever written in the English language. They are masterfully crafted mysteries that manage to be regularly funny and quotable, they present a perfect frozen-in-amber view of Victorian England, and have two main characters that share a legitimately moving friendship. It’s something I keep on a pedestal, and will defend with all resources.

This of course regularly draws me out to battle. Arguably the most famous fictional character ever created, Holmes has essentially become public domain, leading to almost 200 films and countless books based off the character. The films give me headaches – taking him into the future or introducing him to Batman is just the tip of the iceberg – but even worse are the glorified crossover fan fiction novels, pairing him with everyone from Sigmund Freud to Oscar Wilde to Teddy Roosevelt. It destroys the perfect world that Doyle created, and in all comparisons the writing is unequivocally atrocious.

Being as defensive of the character as I am, I naturally had mixed feelings about the announcement that Warner Brothers would be releasing a new film based on the character. There were positive factors – Guy Ritchie as the director, Robert Downey Jr. as the titular character and Jude Law as Watson – but the imagery seemed worlds away from the traditional interpretation. There were several articles espousing the fact that they were going for a version more akin to Doyle’s original interpretation, but trailers that looked more like “Van Helsing” than Baker Street kept my cynicism levels peaked.

So when the film came out I tried to put my passion and prejudice off to the side, and study the film in the analytical Holmes fashion. And like Holmes at the end of a chemical endeavor, I found myself pleasantly surprised. While the film takes more than a few liberties with the subject matter and is clearly focused on flash over literature, there’s a clear loyalty to the source material and many of the changes made do bring forward elements of the character that are usually buried.

Viewing the short stories and novels as too limited for a contemporary action-adventure film (correctly I would say) the film focuses on the case of Lord Blackwood, a devil-worshipping nobleman who apparently rises from the dead after Holmes uncovers the evidence leading to his execution. With mass hysteria threatening to break out, Holmes must solve the case – while also dealing with his partner’s impending marriage, the reappearance of his rival/lover Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and a regularly poisoned bulldog. It’s a bit of an outlandish story for the great detective, but it’s of course not the first time that the detective approached the supposedly supernatural or Watson’s romantic life.

The setting also doesn’t feel too divorced from the source. Despite the obvious steampunk additions, Ritchie and the producers have created a London that meshes with the original semi-regularly. Horse-drawn carts are the mode of transportation, London’s streets and sewers are appropriately dark and weathered, and and Holmes’ personal quarters are littered with chemical research, case papers and pipe tobacco in a slipper. It certainly doesn’t feel like the canonical setting – there’s no fog unless you count the film’s bluish-gray tint, and it’s a lot busier than the quiet of Baker Street would lead you to believe – but Holmes is clearly at home there, able to disguise himself perfectly after one stroll through a market.

And certainly when it comes to an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, its legendary titular character makes or breaks the adaptation. Robert Downey Jr. was a surprising choice, without the excessive height and leanness the books describe and Basil Rathbone popularized, and his Holmes is at first glance worlds away. He is haphazardly dressed in a fedora, corduroy coat and tinted glasses, given to biting witticisms towards the local police force, and even enters the boxing ring for a few “Fight Club”-esque brawls. His mannerisms edge on bipolar, lounging in a dressing gown and firing off his revolver when bored and riveted on the little details when not.

It’s a different take on the character, but surprisingly Ritchie and producer Lionel Wigram have grounded it heavily in the original mythos. Holmes did take a variety of drugs for scientific and recreational purposes, took pleasure in fistfights (though that always happened off-screen), did idly pick at his violin when no challenge presented himself, and did keep his personal quarters in shambles with a patriotic V.R. shot into the wall “in one of his queer humors.” Downey revels in these eccentricities, but never presents them as out of character – they are all part of the strange genius that Holmes brings to his cases and relationships. Additionally, his speeches explaining his deductions are the ideal “Sherlock Holmes English-speaking vernacular,” quick and precise in the nature of Doyle’s famous summaries.

But while Downey has many of the Holmes mannerisms down pat, there’s an unshakeable feeling that something is off in his portrayal. Holmes did have his oddities and addictions but he was always depicted as perfectly in control, “a delicate and finely adjusted temperament,” and this new version doesn’t have the air of untouched infallibility the books conveyed. It really feels more like a hybrid of Jack Sparrow, Tony Stark and Gregory House, a massive intelligence with ego to match, a cunning wit used to deflect serious attention at him. The calabash pipe and deerstalker have been stripped away, and although this does let us see more of Holmes’ character traits the personality is out with the clothes.

This new portrayal also seriously changes the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, undoubtedly the most legendary partnership in literature. The two were certainly close friends, but their devotion to each other came out in subtle ways, Watson backing Holmes in his riskiest affairs and Holmes only dropping his shield to reveal praise and concern for the Doctor. Here though, it’s more like House and Wilson than Holmes and Watson as they snipe back and forth at each other like an old married couple, Watson even going so far as to express his distaste for Holmes borrowing his clothes. That tone belongs in stories inspired by their dynamic, not the real thing.

This is nothing against Jude Law however – he gives an admirable performance, and it’s a relief to see Watson portrayed as a tough competent partner rather than a bumbling foil. I am certain however that he could never beat Holmes to the punch on a chemical deduction, or use his hat in Oddjob-style in fistfights. And these fights are many, but thankfully not overwhelmed by Ritchie’s dizzying editing style – and quickly enlivened as Holmes breaks down a series of disabling moves as if he was listing off one of his deductions. (Indeed, Ritchie’s style works quite well with Holmes’ thought process, peppering in flashbacks and close-ups to illustrate the little details that only he could connect).

Other characters have the same depictions – different from the originals but still there in spirit. Irene Adler, “the woman” to Holmes and the only one to outfox him, is well cast in Rachel McAdams, more conniving and sultry than “A Scandal in Bohemia” suggested but still convincing as the only woman to throw Holmes’ legendary focus off track. Mark Strong is mainly there to look imposing as Lord Blackwood, running his machinations in the shadows, but the portrayal is on par with Holmes’ canonical adversaries Jack Stapleton or John Clay – both of whom clearly influenced his creation. And like Watson, Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) is finally treated with some respect, shown as not being the sharpest of detectives but certainly one of the most tenacious.

The movie does have the typical Hollywood ham-handedness in setting up a sequel, but – and this was the most surprising part of “Sherlock Holmes” – I find myself embracing the idea. The devious Professor Moriarty and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, along with the loose threads of a few dozen more short stories, are all there to be adapted into this new rendition of literature’s most famous investigator. It’s not perfect – indeed, it would take Holmes itself barely a glance to point out the flaws – but it’s far more faithful (and entertaining) than you’d expect from putting the great detective through the blockbuster wringer.

Extra Credit:

To better understand my appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, please enjoy my favorite Holmes short stories, all available through the miracle of public domain and the good folks at Wikisource.


Book Review: This Wicked World

January 12, 2010

This Wicked World

By Richard Lange

Published June 30, 2009

Little, Brown and Company

416 pp.

ISBN 0-316-01737-X

Reviewed: January 11, 2010

All major cities tend to inspire literature based on their hundreds of thousands of inhabitants – New York, London and Paris in particular boast a thriving canon – but for some reason those that come out of Los Angeles are the most distinctive. From Raymond Chandler to Charles Bukowski to James Ellroy, the city’s stories and characters have a curiously dark and jaded hue setting them aside from other metropolitan fiction. It’s a setting where failures outnumber success hundreds to one, full of cultural icons but also struggling immigrants, embittered lawmen and artists clawing for a break.

The sheer scope of Los Angeles also means that thousands of things can happen under the radar, as Tom Cruise’s assassin character pointed out in the film “Collateral” when he mentions a man who died on the train: “Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices.” In Richard Lange’s debut novel “This Wicked World,” someone does notice one of those corpses – and following the path to discovery adds yet another chapter to the city’s bleakness.

Like “Collateral” this corpse is also found on public transportation, only this time it’s the body of a young Hispanic immigrant covered in infected dog bites. Seeking to find out what happened, his grandfather enlists the help of Jimmy Boone, a former Marine and convict currently making ends meet as a bartender. Boone takes the case, and finds the deceased was linked to an ugly world of dogfights, drug deals and counterfeiting – a world that’s not happy about him poking around in it.

Indeed, very few people seem to be happy in this rendition of Los Angeles – the mottoes “More good times than bad” and “Fail better” are each mentioned more than once, and each of the featured characters seems to have at least five bad stories from their past. Boone, the novel’s weathered hero, started out life as a small-town punk who chose the army over jail, wound up in a bad marriage with a rich Daddy’s girl and made one critically bad choice that destroyed a thriving security career. Other characters have been molested, their children shot themselves, they kept their mouths shut on bad shootings when they were cops – Lange leaves no one unburdened, and happiness on a short leash.

The negativity of the main characters is fairly overwhelming at times, but Lange invests each of them with surprising depth to match their detailed histories. There’s an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire who raises fighting dogs, a nervous young drug dealer who could be seamlessly replaced with the excellent Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad” and a homicidal hitman who’s getting laser tattoo removal to better impress the judge who’s hearing his daughter’s custody case. Like any good mystery the split between good guys and bad guys is fairly nonexistent, all are on varied levels of being screwed over and finding a way to get through the day. Lange takes advantage of telling the novel in third-person present tense, swapping within chapters without ever losing the story in one character.

It also helps that the story is genuinely well-told, with the cinematic noir feeling of many of the better LA-themed mystery novels. On one half there’s the endless sprawl of the metro areas, “the bashing, crashing swirl of the city” with its half-abandoned bars and junkie apartments, and on the other half is the barren desert, “full of dust, no color she can name.” “Wicked World” doesn’t lack for atmosphere by a long shot, and as the course of events proceed – like all the right mysteries set off by just one little thing – there’s the concrete feeling that no one is looking out for anyone beyond themselves.

The events do get a touch convoluted after a while – the participants are entangled in one too many crimes gone bad – but it’s a testament to Lange’s skill as a writer that he’s able to keep a reader going until the end. It’s a cinematic feel that compelling executes a normally conventional plot, and actually leaves one genuinely concerned with how its diverse cast is going to turn out. “This Wicked World” is both proof of that and a very satisfying addition to the LA canon – proof that no matter how the world changes, the City of Angels will always have thousands of stories without a moral.