Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing


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Absolute Certainty

A Fictional Take on the French Revolution

Within the last few years my delayed education in history has been improved by my reading of books about and involving the French Revolution, such as Fatal Purity: Robespierre and French Revolution by Ruth Scurr and The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

raseroNow I have come upon a book entitled Rasero. Although the word is given as the name of the main character of the book, it is not a proper noun and, in Spanish, means “leveller.” I received the book in exchange for another I gave to a correspondent in the United Kingdom. We met, online, through BookCrossing.

Rasero, by Francisco Rebolledo and translated from the Spanish by Helen R. Lane, is well-reviewed here.

The book turned out to be a page-turner for me. Through a fictional character we are introduced, intimately, with major characters in the era of The Enlightenment, and those leading to and participating in the French Revolution of 1789. The major sections of the book are entitled: Diderot, Damiens, Voltaire, Mozart, Mariana (a fictional character), Madame de Pompadour, Lavoisier, Robespierre, and Francisco Goya.

The author uses a clever device to lead us into the future to see the putative results of the Enlightenment, namely, the uses of science and technology to improve, and make more disastrously efficient, warfare. The device used is Rasero’s visions of the future upon achieving orgasm, which he has with many lovely partners, but no visions with the one love of his life. Although somewhat ribald, the author’s depiction of the pleasures of the flesh are not, in my view, to the main point of the book and are offered in a pleasant, almost poetic, manner.

The voice in which the novel is written was strange to me at first. There is an omniscient observer describing to the main character what he is experiencing, and the reader is witness to this one-way conversation. “You” is constantly used by the narrator to tell Rasero how he is feeling and what he is experiencing. There is a twist on this near the end which I will not reveal.

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A depiction of the event wherein the head of King Louis XVI was severed from his body by The Guillotine, his public execution having been ordered by “The Committee of Public Safety”

The main point, I feel, is made in this passage where Rasero is hotly criticizing Robespierre for not stopping “The Committee of Public Safety” from executing Pierre Lavoisier, the eminent scientist and chemist:

Power…has corrupted you. No one has yet been born who, reaching power, is not corrupted, and you…are very far from being the exception…You’ve acquired absolute power. a power that allows you to cut off lives, the way one snips flowers in the countryside. And that power has corrupted you absolutely…

Rasero ponders elsewhere in the book that Robespierre’s vision of the correct society, one based on rational principles, is so “correct” in Robespierre’s mind that it overtakes all other considerations. Even as he is led to the guillotine to lose his own head where countless others through his agency have lost theirs, Robespierre has absolute certainty he was and is right (my emphasis).

A scholar on the subject summarizes thus:

Robespierre’s failure can be viewed as that of a man so narrow-minded in his views that eventually he cannot conceive of anything outside of them, a man so firmly convinced of his own absolute rightness that he cannot see the glaring errors he makes. It had grown inconceivable to him that anyone should oppose him successfully, and when someone did, the blow numbed him into inaction for a while. Although he started out with the best of motives, it came to the point where protection of the ideals for which he stood was everything to him, whereas protection of the people whom the ideals were originally to protect meant nothing. [Source]

 


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Wisdom From Oz

Johnny Dooit’s* Song (See footnote):

The only way to do a thing
Is do it when you can,
And do it cheerfully, and sing
And work and think and plan.
The only real unhappy one
Is he who dares to shirk;
The only really happy one
Is he who cares to work.

The Road to OzFrom The Road to Oz, by L. Frank Baum, 1909: In which is related how Dorothy Gale of Kansas, The Shaggy Man, Button Bright, and Polychrome the Rainbow’s Daughter met on an Enchanted Road and followed it all the way to the Marvelous Land of Oz, encountering strange people and interesting adventures along the way.

My father read to me and my sister Diane, and we later read for ourselves, all 14 Oz books written by L. Frank Baum. There were more written by others after Baum died, but they didn’t come up to the standard his books established, according to both Dad and me.

I often think of Johnny Dooit when I am engaged in manual labor; he provides inspiration. I also learned to appreciate the value of tools and a can-do attitude through him, later buttressed by real life experiences.

The first book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the unforgettable movie made of it in 1939, are essential parts of my childhood. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sung by Judy Garland, never fails to evoke tender feelings in me.

But, there is so much more to the full story of Oz. Here are the 14 books, in publication date order:

  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
  • The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)
  • Ozma of Oz (1907)
  • Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908)
  • The Road to Oz (1909)
  • The Emerald City of Oz (1910)
  • The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913)
  • Tik-Tok of Oz (1914)
  • The Scarecrow of Oz (1915)
  • Rinkitink in Oz (1916)
  • The Lost Princess of Oz (1917)
  • The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918)
  • The Magic of Oz (1919, posthumous)
  • Glinda of Oz (1920, posthumous)

You can access the text of all of these books online, here.

RinkitinkIn addition to The Road to Oz another favorite of mine is Rinkitink in Oz, King Rinkitink of Gilgad is a Falstaffian character who rides a surly billy goat who talks, of course, and in a most disrespectful manner to everyone, including especially the king. There is a young man, the Prince of Pingaree, who accompanies the King to Oz, in order to escape his kingdom’s enemies and to seek help from the ruler of Oz. The Prince has three magic pearls that figure in his ability to overcome great dangers on his trip to Oz.

Prince Inga’s father, King Kitticut, had told him, before the King and Queen were captured by enemies: “Each of the three possesses an astonishing power, and whoever is their owner may count himself a fortunate man. This one having the blue tint will give to the person who carries it a strength so great that no power can resist him. The one with the pink glow will protect its owner from all dangers that may threaten him, no matter from what source they may come. The third pearl — this one of pure white — can speak, and its words are always wise and helpful.” To add spice to the story, the Prince has trouble hanging on the the pearls as he, King Rinkitink and Bilbil the goat search for the the safety and the help of the Land of Oz.

woggleA major point in this book is that Dorothy Gale of Kansas is not the main character, as she is in so many others–and he is a boy. There is another book where the main character starts out, from our view, as a boy but is later transformed back into his original condition as Ozma, The Royal Princess of Oz. This occurs in the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, the only book in which Dorothy Gale does not appear.

One of my favorite characters is introduced in this second book: “H.M. Wogglebug, T.E.” whom you see lecturing the assembled characters in the image on the left. H.M. stands for Highly Magnified (he escaped from a professor’s magnifying apparatus) and T.E. means Thoroughly Educated (after all, he was a living specimen for students and therefore lived at a university). This character exhibits all the pomposity and windiness of the quintessential caricature of a professor. I think Dad and I saw ourselves in him.

Dad started the tradition of collecting, keeping and passing along the Oz books to the generation that follows. Some of the books I held as a young boy (and my sister, as a younger girl) are now in the possession of my youngest daughter Analiese and her nieces, my granddaughters Sydney and Sonya, and my great-granddaughter Quinn.

As you may sense, I could go on and on about the many and surprising array of characters in the Oz books, not all of them nice people, or even people at all.

I urge to read one to see if you can resist reading others, no matter what your age.

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  • Johnny Dooit – Johnny Dooit is a fictional “handyman” appearing in The Road to Oz. He is a little old man with a long beard who is friends with the Shaggy Man. His appearance in the novel is less than one chapter, in which he creates a Sand Boat to allow the Shaggy Man and his friends, Dorothy GaleButton-Bright, and Polychrome to cross the Deadly Desert into the Land of Oz.[28] Johnny has a tool chest from which he can pull out nearly any equipment he needs. At Ozma‘s birthday party, he builds an aircraft out of contents of the trunk, puts the trunk inside, and flies away as an entertainment while getting himself to the next place he is needed as he loves to work and keep busy.


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When Does Boyhood End?

Over the years, I have read and re-read these books:

Robert Pirsig (b. 1928) and his son Chris (1956 - 1979)

Robert Pirsig (1928-2017) and his son Chris (1956 – 1979)

There may be a common thread among all these, and there certainly is in the last two. In each of these two, an old Greek teaches a much younger Englishman how to grow up, according to each mentor’s way. In The Magus, the pupil never quite gets there.

I recently was perusing the editor’s introduction to the revised 1978 edition of The Magus where I read that Fowles was influenced in his life, generally, and for the writing of this book, by his childhood love of three books:

This lead me to look for these books on the Internet and this search brought me to an obituary of Fowles, he having died in November 2005. I hadn’t heard of his death and it briefly saddened me. I was fascinated by this obit and a book review of his biography by Eileen Warburton. Then I came upon this 1996 article by John Fowles, himself, on the influences underlying The Magus. What riches the Internet brings us!

John Fowles

John Fowles

I read the three favorite books of Fowles’s youth, the first two being much quicker reads than Great Expectations. As I began this last of the three, I was surprised to see that I had not previously read the book, despite (or perhaps because) my father carried richly-bound Dickens books with us whenever we moved, which was often. How many times have we read in general literature reference to “Miss Havisham”?

I was prepared to hurry through ‘Expectations’ as I had the other two but found myself bound to slow down to closely read the rich dialog and unsurpassed characterizations. And what characters with such names: Mr. Pumblechook, Mr. Wopsle, the heartless Miss Estella, Mr. Wopsle’s great-aunt whose name we are never shown, “Old” Orlick who is not much older than Pip the young principal of this story, the hapless Pocket family, the lawyer Mr. Jaggers, and many more.

Through the reading of these books, articles, and obits I am now able to appreciate The Magus even more fully. As a sometimes writer, I find it enlightening to learn how an author’s life experiences affect his writing.