The Pretender (Robert W. Service, 1914)

A bestselling author is chafed by reviews that say he writes nothing but pablum and is incapable of true art. On a whim, he leaves for Europe, where he intends to start from scratch to prove to himself and to the world that his success isn’t a fluke and that he really is a great writer. During his adventure, things happen to him that are so contrived and incredible that he can’t help but think his life is not unlike one of his old stories. He finds himself married to a sickly Frenchwoman and living in a Parisian garret, struggling to scrape together a few sou to buy bread crusts, with his great literary goal always just out of reach. Eventually, he returns to his familiar potboilers and, sure enough, becomes a bestseller once more. He returns to America content with what he is — an author of worthless books that everyone reads and not of important books that nobody does.

Inscription: signed on the front flyleaf in a very fanciful, flowing script that’s almost wholly indecipherable. Norman Vincent, maybe?

Amelia (Henry Fielding, 1751)

A satire of the sentimentalist novels so in vogue in the first half of the 18th century, similar in style to Fielding’s earlier Joseph Andrews. It’s perhaps better written than that book (and less overtly comic), but storywise, it’s not as entertaining in my opinion.

Amelia Harris is the child of a wealthy woman who has high hopes of her making an advantageous marriage, but her daughter has fallen in love with a poor, young army man named William Booth. With the help of the local parson, Dr. Harrison, she and Will elope. Her mother dies not long afterward, leaving her entire fortune to Amelia’s sister. The Booths are left to shift for themselves in London, which is a daily struggle. Will finds himself several times in debtors’ prison, Amelia is assaulted on all sides by pimps and lechers, and the line between friend and enemy grows ever blurrier. Eventually, it’s discovered that Mother’s will was a forgery — she had actually left almost the whole of her estate to Amelia, but her sister conspired with an underhanded lawyer to steal it. Restored to fortune, Will and Amelia leave the miserable city to live happily ever after in the countryside.

Most of the book’s humor derives from how very at odds the plot treats its characters (that is, as if they were the familiar stock characters found in all sentimentalist novels) to how they are actually characterized. Will is not a good husband. He’s idle, given to drink, a gambling addict, adulterous, and violently jealous; possessing of just enough intelligence to reason away his many vices. Amelia is not the perfect partner. She’s an overly trusting pushover who’s ignorant of both formal education and common sense, whose virtue may be more correctly termed prudishness, and whose secretive nature, while protecting Booth from some dangers, exposes him to many others. Dr. Harrison is not a wise savior. He’s an opinionated pedant at best and a useful fool more frequently, as quick to condemn as to forgive, easily flattered by sycophants and more easily offended by true friends. The villains, likewise, are complicated and inconstant, many (such as the bailiff at the debtors’ prison) possessing a moral code that, while idiosyncratic, they strictly adhere to and judge themselves by.

The Adventures of Roderick Random (Tobias Smollett, 1748)

A satirical story very much in the vein of Gil Blas. The youngest son of a moderately wealthy Scottish gentleman falls in love with and secretly marries the housekeeper. Their first and only child, Roderick Random, is soon born and the secret can no longer be kept from the family patriarch, who is so incensed that he at once disowns his son and expels him from the house. Random’s mother soon dies, and his father, driven mad with grief, disappears and is presumed to have killed himself.

Grandfather, while never owning him, does provide for his education at boarding school. Random excels in his studies — or, at least, so he says, the novel being told, in picaresque style, via his own unreliable first-person narration. When Grandfather dies, Random expects to receive the lion’s share of the estate to atone for all the wrongs committed against him, but is quite disappointed to discover that he’s entirely left out of the will. His uncle, a seaman long absent abroad and no great friend of the family, has just returned and takes up Random’s cause — to no avail. His rough approach only alienated the two further. For as long as he’s in country, he pays Random’s way to university, but as soon as he departs on his next voyage, the friends he left him entrusted to turn him out on the street.

Random sets out for London, intent on becoming a surgeon in the navy, and on the road meets his old schoolmate Hugh Strap, who, though rather well funded compared to himself, he takes on as something of a valet. They meet with various misadventures along the way to the city, where Random discovers, much to his consternation, that one can’t simply just start practicing surgery. Turns out there’s this whole training and licensing thing that he’d been entirely unaware of. After spending much of Strap’s money, falling prey to several scammers who did not fail to spot an easy mark in the naive Scotsman (Random himself is only vaguely aware of having been so used), and being briefly arrested, he procures a license to be a surgeon’s second mate third-rate (one of his examiners, rather amused at his ignorance, ask him what he would prescribe for a man with an amputated head — he fails to recognize the joke).

Many more misadventures follow and Random burns many more bridges through his own hubris.  Eventually, he gets taken on a ship, but he finds his life is not any easier. He becomes an enemy of the captain and, long story short, finds himself as penniless when he lands as he was when he started out. He condescends to becoming a servant and at once falls in love with his mistress, a young woman named Narcissa. Jealousy for her suitor causes him to behave rather rashly and he soon is forced to flee the country. He joins the French army, which he finds altogether intolerable. Things look bleak until Strap — who Random last saw before setting sail as a surgeon’s mate — returns in the character of Monsieur d’Estrapes. His career has been rather more successful than Random’s and he’s assumed the rank of a gentleman, but immediately upon their reunion, he turns over all his wealth and devotes himself to Random’s service.

In Random’s hands, his friend’s money does not last long. Nearly destitute, Random sets his sights on marrying a wealthy woman, which he very nearly does until Narcissa returns and rekindles his former passion. Her father is dead, but his fortune is held by her brother in trust, and is contingent on his approval of whoever she should choose for a husband. Random assassinates whatever character he had left in courting her, and after some underhanded dealings in search of fresh funds, finds himself in prison. Fortunately, after not many weeks of incarceration, his seaman uncle discovers him once again. Uncle has done well for himself. He secures Random’s freedom and recruits him as surgeon on the ship he’s about to set sail on.

In Paraguay, their ultimate destination, Random meets a British expatriot who, after sixteen years abroad, now goes by the name of Don Rodrigo. Surprisingly, this turns out to be Random’s long-lost father. Random’s fortunes immediately reverse, thanks to Don Rodrigo having built quite a large fortune since his departure from Scotland. They return to England, where Random proposes to Narcissa. They marry without her brother’s approval, although on closer inspection of her father’s will, it turns out that her brother was only in charge of her inheritance until she turned 18, and as she’s now 19, her money is hers to do with as she pleases.

 

A remarkably smooth read, if that makes any sense. Not that the content is polished — it’s always irreverent and often verges on being bawdy — but each sentence flows seamlessly into the next and the whole has a lyrical quality to it, like a poem in prose. Smollett is similar to Bulwer-Lytton in that regard, but unlike in, say, Bulwer-Lytton’s own picaresque Pelham: or The Adventures of a Gentleman, the humor here is never obscured under too many words. And Roderick Random is a funny book, and entirely relatable, too, never mind its age.

Les Bijoux Indiscrets (Denis Diderot, 1748)

Mangogul, the Sultan of the Congo, has grown bored and listless. This has not gone unnoticed by the Sultana, Mirzoza. It’s suggested that much entertainment could be found in the personal histories and exploits of the ladies of the court, but of course, those are  secrets they’d never reveal. Mangogul calls on Cucufa, a hermit sorcerer, who supplies him with a ring that, when the Sultan rubs it and points it at a woman, will cause that woman’s vagina to speak — and vaginas only have one thing to talk about.

Although Mangogul promises never to turn the ring on her, Mirzoza has misgivings from the start. No good can come from it, she says. It would be an insult to a virtuous wife, and for one who isn’t, her husband’s happiness depends on his ignorance. Mangogul persists, however, and begins performing “trials” of his magic ring. Mirzoza’s second warning proves to be entirely correct, but her first seems to be unfounded, insofar as there don’t appear to be any virtuous women in the Congo. Mangogul makes a bet with her that one will never be found. Twenty-nine trials pass and Mangogul is still the winner.

Mirzoza suddenly falls ill, and Mangogul, fearing that her death is imminent and seeing that she is insensible, turns on the ring. Mirzoza’s “toy”, as the book euphemistically calls it, attests to the Sultana’s fidelity to the Sultan. Mirzoza recovers and at first is angered by Mangogul breaking his promise, but quickly recognizes the circumstances that prompted it, and forgives him on the condition that he return the ring to Cucufa. Mangogul takes off the ring at once and readily consents to give it back to the sorcerer.

The book is explicit in the sense that there’s never any question about what’s going on, but simultaneously, it strictly avoids any vulgar language. Whenever things starts to become… less polite, it switches to Italian or Spanish, and when it gets really filthy, it drops into Latin. The author cautions curious lady readers not to inquire as to the translation of these sections.

Les Bijoux Indiscrets was Diderot’s first novel, and although it’s set in Africa in the far, far, far distant future of 15,000,000,032,000,021, it’s a rather transparent allegory for the then-current court of Louis XV in France.