Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Caesura: Sherlock Holmes, Part 1

I am a little too tired to write anything worthwhile or substantial about poetry today, so I'll discuss, briefly, what it is that I've been doing when I'm likewise too tired to read any thing "substantial," which is going through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's complete novels and stories of Sherlock Holmes.  I have made may way entirely through the first 1055-page volume and have begun the second, which starts with "The Hound of the Baskervilles."  I can understand why this particular novella is the most ubiquitous, canonically, because I think it is the best one.

By all counts I shouldn't be interested in going back through these works at all, the last time having read them being some time in High School.  I was inspired, however, to pick them up again after watching all of Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes in the BBC's Granada Television adaptation.  Brett's portrayal of the character is so engaging and singular that it sent me back to a text I, by all other counts, should be completely ambivalent about, although I have had an inexplicable interest in the character all my life.  I will write more later about actors' portrayals of the detective.

Insofar as Holmes is an acolyte of the scientific method and a staunch authoritarian, he should run counter to everything in the world I hold sacred.  Indeed, this work having been published in the late-19th century, it can be seen as a popular reaction against Romanticism in many ways.  After all, it paved the way for all other such apparently-supernatural-problem-turns-out-to-be-mundane narratives to follow (c.f. all of "Scooby Doo," etc.), a trope I find to be considerably irritating, since I am essentially a Romantic at heart.

Doyle embraces fully the Industrial Revolution and the new religion of the scientific dynamo, as well as a few even less savory then-contemporary intellectual, such as physiognomy.  He seems to occasionally lampoon the British caste system, occasionally will handle a female character semi-progressively and Holmes on occasion will act of his own accord in abeyance of British law, but apart from this he is essentially stodgy and Apollonian.

Likewise, I have no interest in hermeneutics and can rarely follow a mystery plot through its circumstantial/logical gyrations to make the ending meaningful.  For this reason I am generally ambivalent about the genre of the detective novel.

This leads me to surmise that what I most appreciate is Doyle's prose--not something he is generally known for, but in a purple age his style is terse, but stylized and of quotidian diction for the time, which registers today as slightly elevated.   What he seems to have mastered is covering a lot of narrative ground in a small span of time without being banal.  These are all characteristics that likewise interest me in mid-20thcentury genre novels--noir fiction and early science fiction novels.  The technique, as it progressed, though, would become boring and mundane so that it is difficult to read such books published later than the 80's or so.  The culprit, I think, behind this is an impoverishment of diction, but this is only a theory.

There is something interesting about stylized, pragmatic prose that has something in common with poetry.  Consider the following paragraph, leitmotifs notwithstanding:

I drew aside my curtains before I went to be and looked out from my window.  It opened upon the grassy space which lay in front of the hall door.  Beyond, two copses of trees moaned and swung in the rising wind.  A half moon broke through the rifts of racing clouds.  In its cold light I saw beyond the trees a broken fringe of rocks, and the long, low curve of the melancholy moor.  I closed the curtain, feeling that my last impression was in keeping with the rest. 
Nothing revolutionary, but Doyle at least has a decent ear.  While predictable, there is something comforting and entertaining about it, perhaps something akin to watching a sport where there are a limited number of things that can happen, but the pleasure lies in the innumerable permutations of the expected.


Patrick said...

But the Holmes stories were only a part of Doyle's enormous output, and Holmes represents only a part of Doyle's views. Doyle was into spiritualism and wrote many (non-Holmes) stories in which the source of conflict turns out in fact to be supernatural; the Professor Challenger novel 'The Land of Mist' comes to mind. That was published later than most of the Holmes stories, but flipping through my copy of 'The Supernatural Tales' I see that the stories included there are from the 1880's and '90's. (And, damaging my point, more than one of the stories in that collection go 'Scooby Doo' in the end. Still, many don't.)

Patrick said...

And oh yeah, Brett has always been the one to me, overcoming even Rathbone.

Patrick said...

Overcoming even *Robert Downey, Jr.*