Saturday, July 20, 2013

Enemy Books: Her Father's Daughter

Part of a series: "I thought it would be nice to begin featuring books which I cannot stand for whichever reason. (...) But the main point of an Enemy Books series is to invite readers to leave a comment to describe the beauties which they find in the work. (Even if the Enemy Book blog post in question is months old.)" — "suggestions for a next enemy book" are also welcome. But while the idea is generally for kinder readers to point out the good sides of the book in the comments beneath, perhaps that is not possible this time! Edit: What is the most awful book you have encountered?

This time the 'enemy book' is not a notably familiar one, but Her Father's Daughter (by Gene Stratton-Porter) is sensationally awful and bears the distinction of instantly coming to mind when I think about the worst book I have ever read.

Its young heroes cast in an early gung-ho, conventional Hardy Boys/Bobbsey Twins tradition, its plot outrageous, its events absurd, the most distinctively horrid element in it is still its author's hatred of the Japanese.

Set in California, it is about a fatherless young American woman, Linda Strong, who realizes that there is Something Wrong about a Japanese pupil in her friend Donald Whiting's high school senior class. The classmate is, in fact, a middle-aged man pretending to be an 18-year-old so that he may spy on his country of residence. I was going to write more about her racial theory but it's so upsetting that I'd rather not. Aside from these semipolitical threads in her work, the author's ideas on human psychology and nouveau riches and other phenomena are generally strange, so there is a great deal of bemusement to go around.


Completeness of Ordeal: Could not finish, at first. But I skimmed through all of it for this post, and it's corking reading if done ironically.
Birthdate of Enmity: ca. 2008.
Likelihood That Enmity Is Justified: on sociopolitical grounds, 100%


Evidence, Pro-Enmity:
[Linda:] "There is nothing in California I am afraid of except a Jap, and I am afraid of them, not potentially, not on account of what all of us know they are planning in the backs of their heads for the future, but right here and now, personally and physically. Don't antagonize Oka Sayye. Don't be too precipitate about what you're trying to do. Try to make it appear that you're developing ideas for the interest and edification of the whole class. Don't incur his personal enmity. Use tact."

[Donald:] "You think I am afraid of that little jiu-jitsu?" he scoffed. "I can lick him with one hand."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Master Drawings VI — Landscape With An Obelisk

The Master Drawings series of pictures paired with poems, essays, etc. — drawing from the works in the Ashmolean Museum's present exhibition in Oxford — continues. The next painting was supposed to be one of William Blake's of a scene from Dante's Divine Comedy, but being whelmed beneath the depths of Dante's argle-bargle I threw in the metaphorical towel today.

Preliminary note: Caspar David Friedrich's Landscape with an Obelisk is not on Wikimedia Commons, so here it is (if the link fails us not) at the Ashmolean Museum and in the Guardian's digital pages. Second note: Unfortunately I have forgotten everything about dynasties and time periods and archaeological sites I have ever learned, so this is not written with a solid background on Ancient Egypt. The reader beware, and all that.


It would be remiss not to bring up Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" in connection with Caspar David Friedrich's "Landscape with an Obelisk." They are both charming works in their way, both possessing an Ancient Egyptian element, and both — dare I allege it — art-historically speaking, a trifle inauthentic.

Imbued with a fascination with Ancient Egypt, by grace of school, films and Agatha Christie TV adaptations, and weekends at one's grandfather's and great aunt's homes (they were subscribers to National Geographic, and my grandfather was highly interested in Ancient Egypt himself), one might find "Ozymandias" catchy when one first came across it in school; but one could not fail to consider it a shock to the system.

It was impossible to meld mental images of Ramses, Amenhotep, Nefertiti and cohort together with the fantasy landscape of the poem. From a very personal perspective, and also because I have no idea what Assyrian sounds like and if 'Ozymandias' is intelligible in it, it has always seemed to me more Assyrian than Egyptian. Partly, the poem makes me think of grey stone, whereas somehow the engrained tan and roast-red colours of the Egyptian landscape and ancient art, and the steely sun, are so remarkable that I think the poem should have made reference to them. Edward Lear's delightful series of watercolours from modern Egypt in 1867 (and 1847) certainly does.

By coincidence or design, the sepia-like colours of Caspar David Friedrich's drawing (which incidentally seems to hail from 1803, so before the peak of his production) in my view really does do justice to the Egyptian link. In the meantime the landscape itself seems a tame and indubitably European one — the possible likeness to the agriculture-patched plains of the Egyptian valley being fairly shallow — but it isn't clear at all that Friedrich even meant to portray a southerly setting. (A good researcher would doubtless find this out.)

What I also like about the painting is its coincidentally reflecting the arbitrary way in which obelisks are dispersed around the world these days: near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in front of St. Peter's Cathedral with a crucifix on the tip, in joyous Paris, in an Istanbul hippodrome, or of course in modern Egypt; and, as an artificial recreation inspired by the real thing, even in front of the dome in a strangely pluriedificed square in Potsdam. (Whether this cosmopolitan placement has become a monument to pirating tendencies or to the ego of the imperially-minded person like Napoleon or to a western love for Egyptian history and art, as much as to whoever originally had it built thousands of years earlier, may well be inquired.)

In Friedrich' setting of the monument, it also seems to have a pleasing modesty about it. Someone thought an obelisk would be pretty, he put it out on a grassy little knoll or what-have-you, and the cows will continue to graze and the lapwings will continue to fly past with scarcely any care of this addition to their haunts.

Illustration: Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840): Der Sommer (Landschaft mit Liebespaar), 1807 71.4 cm x 103.6 cm; oil on canvas; in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich
[via Wikimedia Commons]