I was never very interested in reading this book until lately, when political pundits began setting it up as an opposite to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. After reading it, I don’t really see them as opposites so much as complimentary, dystopian views of the direction our world may be headed.
It was first published in 1962. It was recognized as the children’s book of the year in 1963 and the best children’s book in 50 years as of 2004. It was translated into 15 different languages between 1977 and 2011. It has sold over a million copies. It was made into a feature film in 2008. Its author received a knighthood and a lifetime award for youth literature and is considered the greatest children’s author in her country. And when, I ask you, was this children’s classic published in English? Answer: November 2013! Translated from Dutch by Laura Watkinson, it serves as the inaugural title of the new Pushkin Children’s Books label. Thanks to these unusual circumstances, I was able to read a special reviewers’ copy of a book ten years older than myself. You, too, still have time to become one of the first English-speaking fans of this delightful book. You might be able to say you discovered it before the sequel, “The Secrets of the Wild Wood”, makes its English-language debut in 2015. Should you? You should.
Sherlock Holmes had already appeared in two novels, but his popularity did not really take off until the brief “adventures” collected in this book began to appear in monthly issues of “The Strand Magazine”, from 1891 to 1892. And though there are two novels and three volumes of short stories still to come, these 12 mysteries include some of Holmes’s most memorable and celebrated cases. Few of them are concerned with actual murder or even actionable crimes, and Holmes doesn’t always get his man (or woman). But they are Holmes all over, the Sherlock you sure love, fascinating us (even when his cases don’t) by his keen observation, quick deduction, and encyclopedic recall of the history of crime—so that he can often solve in moments a case that keeps Scotland Yard guessing for days.
Published in a series of magazine issues in 1868-69, this is one of the masterpieces by the author of “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”. It made me laugh a great deal, but it is not a comedy. Its climax is mysterious and chilling, but it is not a thriller. Dickensian in its large cast of vividly colorful characters and satire on the society of its time, it is not quite a picaresque. Tragic to a truly disturbing degree, it is too subtle and complex to make grand opera, too often given to immensely long talky scenes, featuring too many characters, to translate well into film—though the attempt has often been made to adapt it for stage or screen. It’s a great novel in which a sensitive reader can feel himself totally immersed, only to be shocked out of “willing suspension of disbelief” when its author breaks the fourth wall and begins commenting on his characters as fictional creations. Though it may come as a surprise to those of us who grew up watching a copy of the novel collecting dust in a reverential spot on our parents’ bookshelf, looking so serious and sophisticated that we could hardly imagine trying to read it, it happens to be a vastly entertaining novel. Once you read it, you will not forget it.
The second book of the Sherlock Holmes canon was first published in 1890 under the five-word title “The Sign of the Four”. Since then, it has often been republished under the four-word title “The Sign of Four”. The confusion actually originates in the book itself, in which both phrases are used interchangeably. Although Holmes did not really become a hit until Conan Doyle followed up with a series of short stories (later collected in such books as “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”), this book is an important step in the development of a great cultural icon. This is the one in which Dr. Watson meets his beloved wife Mary. It marks the first time Holmes enunciates his famous dictum, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this novel, the sleuth’s craving for a seven-percent solution of cocaine is first mentioned, as is the name of the Baker Street Irregulars, those dirty-faced junior detectives of his. Viewers of TV’s “Elementary” will be thrilled to find Holmes here saying, for the first time: “You can… never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to.” And fans of the late Holmes film featuring a bare-knuckled boxing Holmes may be delighted to spot the first mention of his pugilistic talents, already in his second recorded case.
When detective fiction was still in its infancy, in the year 1887, this novel first appeared in an issue of “Beeton’s Christmas Annual”. Just imagine: It was the first anyone had ever heard of Sherlock Holmes! Then a young physician, just starting to stretch his literary muscles, Arthur Conan Doyle here created a character who has become one of the most enduring figures in the popular imagination. The “Holmes” canon now includes four novels and 56 short stories, written over a period of 40 years, but it all began here.
If I had read “Anna Karenina” after this book, it would have cheered me up. Hardy’s last novel, written in 1895, stirred up such harsh criticism that its author never wrote another novel, although he lived until 1928. In me, listening to the audiobook while driving a sales circuit of convenience stores in rural Illinois, it stirred up feelings of failure and disappointment in life. The character of Jude Fawley is a scholarly chap who aspires from an early age to study in the university town of Christminster (in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex), become a clergyman, and distinguish himself in the world.
To understand how these love stories fit together, it is probably best to introduce the not-so-happy couple first. That’s what Tolstoy does, anyway. We first meet the Oblonskys, Stiva and Dolly, at the moment when the love has gone out of their marriage. Dolly has caught Stiva having an affair with their children’s governess, and she is trying to decide whether to leave him when his married sister, Anna Karenina herself, convinces her to forgive him. Stiva and Dolly’s troubled marriage continues to simmer in the background throughout the novel. But while Anna is saving her brother’s marriage, her visit to Moscow has unintended consequences on the happiness of several other people—including, most fatefully, herself. The first person she meets as she descends from the train is a handsome young cavalry officer named Vronsky, who until that moment has been toying with the affections of a debutante named Kitty, who happens to be Dolly’s little sister. It is on Vronsky’s account that Kitty refuses a marriage proposal from a proud country gentleman named Konstantin Levin, and it is on Anna’s account that Kitty suddenly finds herself without any suitor and plunges into despair.
Forget about the 1992 movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and based on this book published in 1826. All these years later, I still remember a lot of things about that movie. Very few of them faithfully represent things in this book. It turns out to be not so much a film adaptation of the novel, as a piece of original entertainment based on characters and situations in the novel. Oh, well. I still like the 2002 film “The Count of Monte Cristo”, even though I now know it resembles its source book even less. It’s a trial to be both a bookworm and a movie buff.
What I never realized until now, on finally reading the story as Stevenson wrote it, is how different his novella is from any and all of the dramatizations, abridgements, contextualizations, and “for dummies” versions on the market. The popular idea of what this story is about is also quite out of order. It isn’t about split personalities or “dissociative identity disorder.” It is about a man’s struggle with the conflicting powers of good and evil within his one personality, and the tragedy that takes place when he experiments with a drug to separate the two. It is a story about the course of a life-destroying addiction, together with a man’s losing struggle against moral corruption, guilt, and the terror of justice.