Friday, April 16, 2010

Contesting Bulwer-Lytton

The Last Days of Pompeii
Edward Bulwer-Lytton

For some reason I got it into my head that I should read something by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. If the name sounds familiar to you, this is almost certainly due to the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, a longstanding competition in which people vie to compose the worst possible opening line to an imaginary novel. He is the namesake of the contest due to his reputation for wooden prose -- a reputation that the popularity of the contest has done much to amplify and broadcast. But then, this is the man who began a novel (Paul Clifford) with "It was a dark and stormy night," a line now mostly famous for being mocked by a cartoon dog some 130 years later.

Yet back in the day Bulwer-Lytton was an bestselling author with a wide and enthusiastic following. He wrote well over twenty novels as well as a few volumes of verse. His books were widely translated into other European languages, and a number of them were made into operas. Nor was his fame especially fleeting; no less than six movie adaptations were made of The Last Days of Pompeii up to 1959. The 1946 edition of Last Days that I have just finished reading is from a series called "Great Illustrated Classics," which includes it among many books we still instinctively think of as "Great Classics" -- Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, Emma, Walden, the Odyssey -- along with others whose reputations, with Bulwer-Lytton's have paled somewhat over the last six decades: Ben Hur, say, or Ivanhoe, or something called The Talisman. It is worth mentioning, too, that as far as I can tell The Last Days of Pompeii has not been out of print since it was first published in 1834, and that a visitor to Amazon as of this writing could choose among more than thirty editions.

So it's an interesting question: who was right? The Victorians, who thought Bulwer-Lytton a ripping good read, and the editors of the early Twentieth Century who thought he was a great, important literary figure from their past? Or We Moderns, who think he's a something of a joke? Is it possible that for whatever reason -- simply to make room for more recent books, say, or perhaps to make room for more books by women, or more non-European writers, or just because of some colossal lapse of the collective critical judgement -- we have let one of the geniuses of our cultural heritage slip into obscurity? I wanted to find out.

The Last Days of Pompeii

Well, it's not much of a contest. Virtually any modern reader is going to find Bulwer-Lytton's prose style lodged somewhere between "wooden" and "laughable," perhaps painfully so. And to prove this point, I will now use a random number generator to pick out four sentences from the book. Whatever four sentences come up will do nicely to prove the point.
1. No! the conquest of the cestus was not sufficient -- he had not yet won the prize of victory -- his father was still a slave!

2. Something, I say, there was in this scene which peculiarly affected Apaecides; and, in truth, it is difficult to conceive a ceremony more appropriate to the religion of benevolence, more appealing to the household and everyday affections, striking a more sensitive chord in the human breast.

3. "Talk not of him," said Ione, covering her face with her hands, as if to shut out his very thought.

4. On the lower seats round the arena sat the more high-born and wealthy visitors -- the magistrates and those of senatorial or equestrian dignity; the passages which, by corridors at the right and left, gave access to these seats, at either end of the oval arena, were also the entrances for the combatants.

So, yeah, this is not what most of us call stellar prose writing. The chopped-up sentences, the breathless exclamation marks! -- and a certain pomposity of tone aren't the half of it. Bulwer-Lytton is constantly jumping into the frame, as in sentence 2, to comment on the action as if he was sending us a postcard. He scoffs at subtlety, making absolutely sure we understand, for instance, why Ione has covered her face with her hands (indeed, sentence 3 manages to tell more or less us the same thing about what's on Ione's mind three seperate times in a single short sentence). And, as sentence 4 illustrates, Bulwer-Lytton is very excited by all he has learned about Roman history. He wants to share his excitement with us, even -- as here -- when it matters not a whit to anything happening in his story. And I'm being a little kind to sentence 4 in this regard, having left off its explanatory footnote about where the equestrians sat relative to the senators.

Well, what about the plot? After a slow start in which very little seems to be happening, it turns into a reasonable enough sort of potboiler. Glaucus is in love with Ione, but her guardian Arbaces has the hots for her too, so when it comes out that the rich young Julia is jealous of Ione, Arbaces agrees to set her up with a love potion she can use on Glaucus. Except, he treacherously gives her a poison instead, but then the blind slave who is ALSO secretly in love with Glaucus steals the potion, and so on and so forth, and eventually there is a murder and gladitorial combat and the whole works. All of this plays out against sub-plots involving the penetration of early Christianity into Roman society, and Bulwer-Lytton's ideas about the relative merits of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and modern European civilizations.

So Is It a Lost Classic?

No. It's not. You can safely add this one to your personal list of books that Michael5000 read so you wouldn't have to. It's interesting as a historical artifact, but you're really not going to find much enrichment here. Especially during the slow-moving first half, the prose style renders Last Days so tedious that to read it is an act of sheer willpower carried out chapter by slow chapter.

Having said that, by the end of the novel I found myself having become fond of The Last Days of Pompeii's unintentional protagonist: Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He is such a smart, decent-seeming guy, and so very, very earnest! He wrote the book after visiting what was then the very recently excavated ruins of Pompeii, and he is clearly so excited to share his new knowledge and theories about life in that ancient town that he can hardly contain himself. His plotting is not particularly sophisticated, but you can tell he had an awfully good time working it all out. His material on the early Christians is every bit as pious as you would expect from a Victorian Englishman, but he uses it very generously to make a pointed critique of religious and cultural intolerance in his own time.

It's idle speculation, but I found myself wondering from time to time how much, if at all, Bulwer-Lytton edited his work. The Last Days of Pompeii feels, to me anyway, like the first draft of a decent Victorian novel, one that was written out straight from the first sentence to the last with no attempt ever made to go back and clean up the language. This is utterly improbable, but it does suggest an interesting assignment that could be used in a creative writing class: edit a chapter or more of Last Days to render it good. All the material for a fun romp of a book is there, after all. It's just waiting for someone to carve it out of the stylistic wood.


Elaine said...

M5000, you are Too Late!
I read this when I was, oh, 14 or so. It wasn't any worse than Dickens, really, which I was forced to read.
Too bad you did not check with me, as i could have saved you. I once entered the bulwer-lytton contest, BTW. But there were better bad writers out there, by far!

d said...

i'm beginning to think that you're something of a masochist. thanks for taking one for the team.

Ben said...

Yeah, but Bulwer-Lytton had a very cool beard!

Amateur Reader said...

What a good exercise. So many issues pop out of this - how tastes change, in prose or story or beards. How what must have looked at the time like minor differences in style no mean te difference between a readable and unreadable book.

I wonder how the movies are. The 1913 version shows up in film histories, but, as you demonstrate here, that does not mean it's especially good.

Michael5000 said...

Elaine: OK, I can see how Dickens and the splendidly bewhiskered B-L would seem similar at 14. But surely you wouldn't equate them as a grownup! Or... would you?

Elaine said...

Well, here's the thing. Much of Dickens is just as dense, prose-wise, as B-Lytton. One sentence can constitute a paragraph. I don't know if you have read _The Old Curiosity Shop_ (in addition, I say, to _David Copperfield_ and _A Tale of Two Cities_, at the minimum) but all of his works are hardly created equal. MUCH later in life I read _Great Expectations_ (with annotation) and was blown away by how great it was...BUT, it was also 'atypical Dickens,' and much more modern in tone and spare in its prose. There's no comparison, in terms of 'body of work'-- Dickens is much the superior-- but if you read only ONE Dickens work, and ONE B-L might find them more similar. Little Nell haunts me still.......!

Michael5000 said...

Interesting. I haven't read any of the four you name, interestingly, but have read "Dombey and Son," "Martin Chuzzlewit," "Our Mutual Friend," and "Bleak House," all of which I found dense and improbable, sure, but also loved.

I hereby give notice -- just in case it comes up -- that I do not intend to read the entire Bulwer-Lytton library in order to be able to speak definitively about his body of work.

Elaine said...

Wow. Well, I hope you read *at least* the two great classics: _David Copperfield_ and _Great Expectations_. (I will add that notations vastly expand the readability because so much of Dickens has little references that need explaining to modern readers and which enhance the experience.)

I agree-- one Bulwer-Lytton is sufficient.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

Knowing me, I would have been masturbating in Pompeii when the volcano hit, and I would be preserved like that for eternity.

Michael5000 said...

Elaine: Unfortunately, they didn't make it onto The Reading List, so they'll probably be deferred quite a ways into the future.

Dr. Ken: Yeah, that's one of the more embarrassing ways to be preserved in ash for all eternity.

Elaine said...

Oooooo Kaaaaaaay.
But if you watch 'Farenheit 451' (if I am remembering the temperature at which books burn)..the one with Oskar Werner, you might get tempted, you know.

Michael5000 said...

Commencing "Great Expectations" on audiotape -- really, cassettes! -- as per instructions.