Peter Gerstenzang explains how to survive the literary cocktail circuit
For immediate release: Bluffers Guide to the Classics
(ACPA-New York) From time to time, everyone gets invited to a cocktail party held for some crazy, colorful writer. Sadly, certain people have to turn down these invitations. But they are usually crazy types, themselves. And due to past parties, now have to pay their damage deposit in advance. More often, though, people turn down their invites due to fear. These folks are afraid the talk will eventually turn to The Great Books.
And, with the exception of "Silas Marner," they haven't read them. Mostly because, they are afraid that the rest of these books are going to be like "Silas Marner." I am offering a bit of help. Tired of saying about Tolstoy, "I liked the War part, but the Peace section was a bit slow?" Here are summations of five of the Great Books, with a few clever ripostes you can make about them. Read on and never embarrass yourself again.
DON QUIXOTE - This is perhaps best known as both the first real novel and the most widely-influential one, as well. What's more remarkable? Its author, Cervantes, was actually writing a note to his landlord, asking for more time with the rent. He simply got carried away. By the sheriff. The book tells the story of a man who sets out in the world to be a knight errant and do chivalrous things. Of course, the fact that these are pretty much the same, is one reason the novel is so long.
You can't go wrong telling someone at the party, that Don Quixote is episodic in nature. Luckier, still, if your explanation is episodic in nature, you will find your listener excusing themselves to get some punch. Now, don't take any short cuts and simply see, "Man Of La Mancha." Then, tell people, you love that part in the book when Sancho Panza sings, "I Really Like Him." This will backfire dramatically. Although, you could find yourself getting invited to more theatre parties. The food isn't as good, but the women are much looser.
ROBINSON CRUSOE - This great novel by Daniel Dafoe was published in 1719 and is considered the first novel in English. The English got very mouthy about this. And Spain would have invaded them, if they weren't too busy burying Cervantes in a pauper's grave. The story revolves around the title character, who after six different shipwrecks, lands on a deserted island. It is difficult having sympathy with a character who pressed his luck so often. However, this is offset by having sympathy for yourself, while you read this thing.
Crusoe spends a lot of time, being alone and making witty observations. How witty? Well, the English find it hysterical, that should tell you something. Even the Spanish think it's funny, which is even more unsettling. Warning: When discussing this novel, stick to things like its use of the first-person and how unreliable he is. I will disassociate myself from you, if you make even a single "Gilligan's Island" reference.
MOBY DICK - Most Americans can fake their way through a literary discussion of this Melville novel. Until you find out, they got most of their info from the menu at Long John Silver's. When discussing Moby Dick, remember, the whale is really only symbolic. Of course, the destruction of the ship at the end is real. However, you can mix these two up and most intellectuals will still think you're totally with it.
A tip: Since most readers of the book, complain about the 100 page digression on the whale, throw a curve. Start with that section and go on and on about it. If, however, you get kidnapped and find yourself teaching at City College, I'm terribly sorry.
HUCKLEBERRY FINN - Despite its place in American letters, most people haven't read this Twain classic. Purely understandable. People reading it, immediately find it so funny and enjoyable, they panic and put it down. And immediately go for something French. But, in pioneering the colloquial voice, the unreliable narrator and character's troubling race relations, there's no one like Huck. Until a century later, when President Bush enters the scene.
A few years later, Ernest Hemingway praised Huck Finn and said it was the first "modern novel." This may be due to its episodic nature and its realistic depiction of the south. Or, the ten Cuba Libres Hemingway had for lunch. In any case, read Huckleberry Finn for its humor and critique of hypocrisy and racism. If it's still an enjoyable experience, it is purely accidental. And you can go right on to something by Faulkner.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY - William Faulkner pioneered the minimal use of punctuation- especially the period- to end things. Of course, certain smart alecs say he should have ended things after his second novel. That sort of cheek won't help you enjoy his great book about the ruined South, as told by a mentally-challenged man. Insert your own Bush joke here. The trickiest aspect of Faulkner, reaching its apex in this book, is to understand who is actually narrating.
At first, it's Benjy Compson, the impaired man. It then switches to Quentin Compson. Trying to stay contemporary, in some modern versions, it then changes to Quentin Tarantino. The final section is narrated by the Compson's maid, Dilsey, who tells the story again, but more objectively. She does wonder, however, how Tarantino, got into the book.
The knock on Faulkner, is that he writes breathtaking passages. Then, because his whiskey glass is empty, he hits you with 20 unreadable pages. The best way to deal with that problem is to get your own glass of whiskey. Then, simply come back when Faulkner has hit his stride again.
Peter Gerstenzang's work has also appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Dog Fancy.
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