Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Today we’re going to talk about one of the true monsters (my copy weighing in at somewhere over 1533 pages) of English literature, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or, The History of a Young Lady. Or, as I liked to call it, Clarissa Explains it All.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Emma Donoghue and 4th for Vendela Vida.)

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth century epistolary novel about a young woman named, oddly enough, Clarissa. Clarissa’s family is newly wealthy and seeking entrance into the nobility. As part of that, they look to marrying the virtuous Clarissa with Robert Lovelace. However, her brother gets into it with Lovelace and then her family hates him, instead wanting to marry Clarissa to a man she despises. Due to an accident of circumstance, Clarissa ends up going off with Lovelace, though firmly committed to remaining virtuous, and the increasingly despicable Lovelace spends the rest of the book trying to undermine her virtue. He drugs and rapes her before eventually meeting his own horrible end, at least his being deserved.

I was once more offering the key to the lock, when, starting from his knees, with a voice of affrightment, loudly whispering, and as if out of breath, they are at the door, my beloved creature! and taking the key from me, he fluttered with it, as if he would double lock it. And instantly a voice from within cried out, bursting against the door, as if to break it open, the person repeating his violent pushes, Are you there?–come up this moment!–this moment!–here they are–here they are both together!–your pistol this moment!–your gun!–Then another push, and another. He at the same moment drew his sword, and clapping it naked under his arm, took both my trembling hands in his; and drawing me swiftly after him, Fly, fly, my charmer; this moment is all you have for it, said he.–Your brother!–your uncles!–or this Solmes!–they will instantly burst the door–fly, my dearest life, if you would not be more cruelly used than ever–if you would not see two or three murders committed at your feet, fly, fly, I beseech you.

O Lord:–help, help, cried the fool, all in amaze and confusion, frighted beyond the power of controuling.

Now behind me, now before me, now on this side, now on that, turned I my affrighted face, in the same moment; expecting a furious brother here, armed servants there, an enraged sister screaming, and a father armed with terror in his countenance more dreadful than even the drawn sword which I saw, or those I apprehended. I ran as fast as he; yet knew not that I ran; my fears adding wings to my feet, at the same time that they took all power of thinking from me–my fears, which probably would not have suffered me to know what course to take, had I not had him to urge and draw me after him: especially as I beheld a man, who must have come out of the door, keeping us in his eye, running now towards us; then back to the garden; beckoning and calling to others, whom I supposed he saw, although the turning of the wall hindered me from seeing them; and whom I imagined to be my brother, my father, and their servants.

Thus terrified, I was got out of sight of the door in a very few minutes: and then, although quite breathless between running and apprehension, he put my arm under his, his drawn sword in the other hand, and hurried me on still faster: my voice, however, contradicting my action; crying, no, no, no, all the while; straining my neck to look back, as long as the walls of the garden and park were within sight, and till he brought me to the chariot: where, attending, were two armed servants of his own, and two of Lord M.’s on horseback.

Here I must suspend my relation for a while: for now I am come to this sad period of it, my indiscretion stares me in the face; and my shame and my grief give me a compunction that is more poignant methinks than if I had a dagger in my heart. To have it to reflect, that I should so inconsiderately give in to an interview, which, had I known either myself or him, or in the least considered the circumstances of the case, I might have supposed would put me into the power of his resolution, and out of that of my own reason.

For, might I not have believed, that he, who thought he had cause to apprehend that he was on the point of losing a person who had cost him so much pains and trouble, would not hinder her, if possible, from returning? That he, who knew I had promised to give him up for ever, if insisted as a condition of reconciliation, would not endeavour to put it out of my power to do so? In short, that he, who had artfully forborne to send for my letter, (for he could not be watched, my dear,) lest he should find in it a countermand to my appointment, (as I myself could apprehend, although I profited by the apprehension,) would want a device to keep me with him till the danger of having our meeting discovered might throw me absolutely into his power, to avoid my own worse usage, and the mischiefs which might have ensued (perhaps in my very sight) had my friends and he met?

But if it shall come out, that the person within the garden was his corrupted implement, employed to frighten me away with him, do you think, my dear, that I shall not have reason to hate him and myself still more? I hope his heart cannot be so deep and so vile a one: I hope it cannot! But how came it to pass, that one man could get out at the garden-door, and no more? how, that that man kept aloof, as it were, and pursued us not; nor ran back to alarm the house? my fright, and my distance, would not let me be certain; but really this man, as I now recollect, had the air of that vile Joseph Leman.

I would normally hate to do this much of a spoiler, but I’m guessing that either you know all this already or you won’t read the book in any event. This is a book that is commonly referred to, but not so commonly read.

It surprised me that Clarissa was written by the same author as Pamela. Sure, Clarissa is a bit preachy in spots and can dwell on a few things that don’t really advance the plot, but the difference is astonishing. Clarissa is the far superior work, in my view.

Clarissa is actually moving, containing developed, human characters who come alive and engage the soul. Though I think Pamela would have been better if cut from 500 pages down to 150 or 200, I found very little in Clarissa that I would cut. Richardson apparently learned a bit between Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela is more of a curiosity piece as I see it, but Clarissa is a truly wonderful early example of what the English language novel could accomplish.

Of course, I don’t actually expect that you’ll read the whole thing.

“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov

Having only read Lolita and The Defense before, I was totally unprepared for the kind of Nabokov that I found in Pale Fire. It is definitely the oddest book of his I’ve ever read, though possibly one of his most interesting.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Chabon, 3rd for Mary Gaitskill, 1st for Michael Griffith, 4th for David Leavitt, 4th for Arthur Philips, and 3rd for Vendela Vida.)

To begin with, Pale Fire presents itself as a 999-line, four-canto poem by John Shade along with forward and commentary by Dr. Charles Kinbote. However, the poem, the forward, and the commentary are all fictional components of the novel. The poem is autobiographical, digressively examining Shade’s fairly ordinary life. The commentary, on the other hand, is anything but commentary on the poem.

Kinbote presents himself as Shade’s close friend, though he only knew him for a few months before Shade’s death and I get the feeling that Shade merely put up with Kinbote. Kinbote had tried to get Shade to write the poem about the escape of the king of a fictional country called Zembla and was disappointed to find out what the poem was really about.

Then, instead of actually commenting on the poem (which he pretends to do) Kibote uses the commentary to talk about his relationship with Shade, his own life, the colleagues he hates at the local college, and the escaped king of Zembla. Revealed through the commentary is the fact that Kibote believes himself to be the escaped king of Zembla (whether or not this is completely insane) and believes the unknown gunman who kills Shade to be a royal assassin named Gradus, actually sent to kill Kibote.

First, let’s look at a section from canto one of the poem (lines 13-28):

Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake
Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,
A dull dark white against the day’s pale white
And abstract larches in the neutral light.
And then the gradual and dual blue
As night unites the viewer and the view,
And in the morning, diamonds of frost
Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed
From left to right the blank page of the road?
Reading from left to right in winter’s code:
A dot, and arrow pointing back; repeat:
Dot, arrow pointing back … A pheasant’s feet!
Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,
Finding your China right behind my house.
Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose
Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes?

Next, let’s look at the commentary for a portion of this section:

Line 17: And then the gradual; Line 29: gray

By an extraordinary coincidence (inherent perhaps in the contrapuntal nature of Shade’s art) our poet seems to name here (gradual, gray) a man, whom he was to see for one fatal moment three weeks later, but of whose existence at the time (July 2) he could not have known. Jakob Gradus called himself variously Jack Degree or Jacques de Grey, or James de Gray, and also appears in police records as Ravus, Ravenstone, and d’Argus. Having a morbid affection for the ruddy Russia of the Soviet era, he contended that the real origin of his name should be sought in the Russian word for grape, vinograd, to which a Latin suffix had adhered, making it Vinogradus. His father, Martin Gradus, had been a Protestant minister in Riga, but except for him and a maternal uncle (Roman Tselovalnikov, police officer and part-time member of the Social-Revolutionary party), the whole clan seems to have been in the liquor business. Martin Gradus died in 1920, and his widow moved to Strasbourg where she soon died, too. Another Gradus, an Alsatian merchant, who oddly enough was totally unrelated to our killer but had been a close business friend of his kinsmen for years, adopted the boy and raised him with his own children. It would seem that at one time young Gradus studied pharmacology in Zurich, and at another, traveled to misty vineyards as an itinerant wine taster. We find him next engaging in petty subversive activities—printing peevish pamphlets, acting as messenger for obscure syndicalist groups, organizing strikes at glass factories, and that sort of thing. Sometime in the forties he came to Zembla as a brandy salesman. There he married a publican’s daughter. His connection with the Extremist party dates from its first ugly writhings, and when the revolution broke out, his modest organizational gifts found some appreciation in various offices. His departure for Western Europe, with a sordid purpose in his heart and a loaded gun in his pocket, took place on the very day that an innocent poet in an innocent land was beginning Canto Two of Pale Fire. We shall accompany Gradus in constant thought, as he makes his way from distant dim Zembla to green Appalachia, through the entire length of the poem, following the road of its rhythm, riding past in a rhyme, skidding around the corner of a run-on, breathing with the caesura, swinging down to the foot of the page from line to line as from branch to branch, hiding between two words (see note to line 596), reappearing on the horizon of a new canto, steadily marching nearer in iambic motion, crossing streets, moving up with his valise on the escalator of the pentameter, stepping off, boarding a new train of thought, entering the hall of a hotel, putting out the bedlight, while Shade blots out a word, and falling asleep as the poet lays down his pen for the night.

Now, I quote a fairly large portion here, but I think it is quite evident why. There is just no way to comprehend the oddity of Pale Fire without seeing how the poem and bizarre commentary interact. I think the above is the shortest section that illustrates this phenomenon quite this well.

For anyone like me who has only read Nabokov works such as Lolita and The Defense, Pale Fire is downright uncharacteristic. It is weird, metafictional, and darkly humorous. However, it is also incredibly good. Pale Fire may not have the same emotive power as Lolita, but it is much more unusual. I highly recommend it, though I do advise that it can take a little getting used to. It is well worth the effort if you hang in there.