Thursday, March 11, 2021

Josephine Tey, Aldo Leopold, and Pär Lagerkvist, a library roundup - supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized

Three books I recently read that need to go back to the library.  They are contemporaries, which is, I think, a coincidence.

The Franchise Affair, Josephine Tey (1948), the 11th best mystery according to the old British Crime Writers poll but only the 81st best for the Mystery Writers of America (both lists visible here).  For much of the novel, it is as much a comedy of manners as a mystery, written in an exemplar of the ordinary literary prose of its time:

In the patch of sunlight was his tea-tray; and it was typical of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet that tea was no affair of a japanned tin tray and a kitchen cup.  At 3:50 exactly on every working day Miss Tuff bore into his office a lacquer tray covered with a fair whole cloth and bearing a cup of tea in a blue-patterned china, and, on a plate to match, two biscuits, petit-beurre on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, digestive Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.  (pp. 1-2)

The Franchise Affair has almost no puzzle aspects whatsoever and only the urgency that seems natural to the events of the moment.  Kinda relaxed, really.  No phoney-baloney fake page-turner climaxes at the end of the chapters.  The Golden Age was, apparently, over.

A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold (1949), a year with the inhabitants (trees, birds, little critters) of a recovering Wisconsin farm (“our predecessor, the bootlegger, who hated this farm, skinned it of its residual fertility, burned its farmhouse, threw it back in to the lap of the County (with delinquent taxes to boot), and then disappeared among the landless anonymities of the Great Depression,” “February”), along with some additional essays and a long polemical piece advocating what now look like standard conservation practices,  standard in part because of the (eventual, hard-fought) success of Leopold’s arguments.

Not just the concept but the prose is heavily dependent on, what else?, Walden, especially the “Economy” chapter:

The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized.  To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear.  (“January”)

Leopold witnesses the dance of the timberdoodles; he eulogizes the passenger pigeon; he bands chickadees.  The manifesto ends with “The Land Ethic” but begins with a “Conservation Esthetic,” which by itself says a lot about why this book is as good as it is.

Barabbas, Pär Lagerkvist (1950, tr. Alan Blair).  Somewhere as a kid I picked up the idea that there was literature and then there was the really serious stuff, the books about God and death and so on, for example the re-tellings of what I knew as “Bible stories,” brought up to date, historically and existentially.  

For example, Barabbas, which has a serious cover and a serious author’s name and a serious subject.  Christ died to save us, but for Barabbas the bandit, saved from crucifixion by the execution of Jesus, this was literally and immediately the case.  This is a solid basis for a Novel of Doubt and Faith.

Lagerkvist’s treatment is short (140 pages), not fussily historicized or smothered in research, and plainly written (here, Jesus has just been entombed):

He [Barabbas] walked up to the tomb and stood there for a while.  But he did not pray, for he was an evil-doer and his prayer would not have been accepted, especially as his crime was not expiated.  Besides, he did not know the dead man.  He stood there for a moment, all the same. (10)

Lagerkvist lets the subject matter do the emotional work, which it does, I thought.

The Vintage paperback, reproducing the first English edition, includes two French prefaces, one by André Gide which is a barrel of laughs:

The Swedish language has given us, and is still giving, works of such outstanding value, that knowledge of it will soon form part of the equipment of any man calling himself well-educated.  We need to be in the position to appreciate the important part likely to be played by Sweden in the Concert of Europe. (xiii)

Pure, high-level, litbiz kitsch.


  1. litbiz kitsch, litbiz kitsch (saying it ten times very fast)

  2. Three times slow would be hard enough.

  3. I've been thinking recently of reading A Sand County Almanac - would you recommend reading Walden first? I started Walden years ago but never finished for some long-forgotten reason.

  4. No, dive into Leopold. If you ever return to Walden or the journals, it will look like Thoreau is imitating Leopold.

  5. Love this post. Excellent description of FRANCHISE, which probably makes it even higher than 11 in my list.

  6. I see that now I have read 8 of the top 11, which is getting somewhere. Decisions get kinda tough at that level, but I would move it up, too, given those choices, but then move it back down if I am allowed to add Blind Man with a Pistol.

    I can't believe there hasn't been a more recent poll. People love those.