Saturday, August 29, 2009

Matthew, Book Review, *F. Scott Fitzgerald, *The Last Tycoon, *Voltaire, *Candide, *Xenophon, *The Persian Expedition

Three books in one post? I didn't realize that I'd fallen so far behind in posting my reviews, but I am nothing if not forgetful.

I'll start off with The Last Tycoon (1941), which F. Scott Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing when he died of a massive heart attack in his mid-40s. The focus of the story is Monroe Stahr, who in spite of his successes as a movie exectutive is thoroughly unhappy and has nearly succeeded in working himself to death. One night, Stahr has a chance encounter with a young woman who closely resembles his late movie star wife, and his quest to find her again (and later, his attempts to woo her) is intertwined with subplots involving the dozens of other concerns assaulting him from all sides: attempts by business partners to oust him, departmental infighting, employees and their personal troubles, the burgeoning unionization movement, and the romantic advances of Cecelia, the daughter of a rival business partner and narrator of the novel.

While the writing was interesting, what I most enjoyed was reading the outlines, character sketches, and notes he produced as he worked on the novel. Together with the rough first chapters, these extra documents made for a fascinating glimpse into Fitzgerald's writing process, halted forever in mid-stride.

Before I get to the other two books, I want to say that it never fails to amaze me how lively and immediate so many classic books turn out to be once I finally get around to reading them. I've noticed a tendency in myself and others to view works by literary icons like Voltaire and Xenophon as intimidating, unapproachable tomes that exist far beyond the ability of our puny mortal brains to comprehend them. Of course, nearly every time I give a work by one of those monoliths a chance it ends up being as readable and compelling as any great book put out in the last decade, but those experiences never seem to dispel that initial feeling the next time around.

Anyway, on to Voltaire. Candide (1759) is a picaresque novel (think Cervantes' Don Quixote and Fielding's Joseph Andrews) with an extra dose of mordant caricature. Through a fast-paced, wildly shifting plot, Voltaire manages to rail against the evils of religion, politics, warfare, and philosophy (especially philosophy of the optimistic variety) without breaking the novel's tone of humorous naivety. The ending was cryptic enough that at first I thought I might have missed something important earlier in the plot that would have made the final message more comprehensible, but after doing a little research I found that pretty much everyone else has had the same reaction to Candide's ending, which made me feel better about my confusion (or at least as better as I'm likely to feel about being confused). Also, I apologize for being rather vague about plot specifics, but I don't think I could say too much more without ruining the fun of watching Voltaire's plot unfold yourself.

Xenophon's The Persian Expedition (379 - 371 BCE) (the title used on my copy -- the more commonly used name the work is Anabasis) is, if I may be blunt, insanely awesome. The book is an account of Xenophon's experiences as part of a Greek mercenary army led by Cyrus, a Persian prince bent on overthrowing his brother the king. The Greek army marched across Asia Minor, finally engaging the giant Persian army in the Battle of Cunaxa (in the vicinity of modern-day Baghdad). Despite the Persians' superior numbers, the Greeks prove to be the better fighters and Cyrus and his bodyguard almost succeed in killing the king before Cyrus himself is killed.

Naturally, this turn of events does not bode well for an invading Greek army in the middle of Persia. A few days later, the situation gets even worse as the Persians use treachery to capture and execute several of the Greek army's remaining leaders. The leaderless mercenaries are ordered to lay down their arms and surrender themselves into slavery. But instead of giving up, the Greeks elected new leaders (one of them being Xenophon) and managed to fight their way back to Greek soil across hundreds of miles of hostile territory.