Saturday, July 11, 2009

Book Eight (and Eight B): Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard

...and the Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
I had high hopes for my reading this week and my expectations were exceeded. In preparation for Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong I returned to my childhood favorite reading. Granted, the Hound has never been my favorite Holmes story, but I found it to be a fun, exciting, and an interesting read. The story is steeped in the gothic tradition with the large estate, deadly moor, oppressive fog, and desolate landscape. Doyle succeeds in creating a character out of the landscape in a way that Willa Cather's does (and you try fitting those two in the senetence.) The ending still tends to just fizzle out, but the steps in getting to the end are worth the effort. Most people know the story in one way or another (my oldest said he remembers it best as a Wishbone episode -- for fans of the literary dog), but just in case: Holmes is called in when a member of the Baskerville family dies. Although it appears a simple heart attack, a doctor and friend of Baskerville thinks he was frightened to death by a giant hound which has haunted the family as a curse. With a new heir arriving can Holmes solve the mystery of the hound before the next (and last) member of the Baskerville family dies? Watson plays a major role in this book in part because some scholars assert the novel was originally written without Holmes -- this was written after Doyle killed Holmes off and before he returned him in "The Empty House." When the publisherr offered double the royalties, Holmes was inserted. Doyle even throws in an insane murderer haunting the moor to throw everyone off track and there are is no shortage of clues to build a case upon. But I leave the ending to you.

Which leaves us Bayard's assertion that Holmes is wrong in this case. His book is in part a look at the Hound, but it is more a lively exploration of literary theory. His has applied his theory of "detective criticism" to Agatha Christie as well and what is appealing is his willingness to apply his theory to practical interpretations. Bayard's theory in general is not original: texts cannot be objective references since every reader completes the story with his/her own background. In fact, the same reader cannot read the same book twice since the second reading will be changed by the first (e.g. you cannot step in the same river twice). In practice someone employing "detective criticism pays close attention to the way the facts are presented, accepting no testimony without reservation and systematically calling into question everything that is reported to him" (70). He then calls into question much of what Holmes concludes and what Doyle writes. The Hound is not a tightly written novel, but then Doyle could not even keep the location of Watson's war wound in one spot -- details are not his strength, which make his success as a detective writer even more surprising. Without spoiling the ending, let it be said that Bayard falls prey to some of the same mistakes he charges Doyle as a writer and Holmes as a character with -- his idea of the real "murderer" has too many holes as well. In some ways Bayard is having fun, so I do not take his reading of the Hound too seriously -- is was an easy target for him.

One of the most interesting chapters is "Does Sherlock Holmes Exist?" in which he explores the the long standing debate about if fiction and reality can intersect. He places himself in the extreme side of the "integrationists," in which he believes that "literary characters enjoy a certain autonomy"(114). I tend to disagree rather strongly, but the disagreement has less to do with what he sees as opposed to how he interprets it. Bayard can argue that the outcry Doyle heard when he killed off Holmes shows the intersection of fiction and reality and thus makes the character autonomous. While I'm happy to play the literary theory game, I also know when people like their stories to continue and characters they like to live (see: Potter, Harry), but this does not give a separate life to the characters. In fact, the argument fails because they are dependent on the readers for the reaction. But his whole discussion of characters who seem to exist independent of their works is very interesting.

As you can see this book got me thinking and was one of the more creative approaches to literary theory I've ever read -- wish they gave me this one to read in my lit. theory class!

Reading Challenges
Dare I say, none? I read Hound of the Baskervilles in two nights and Bayard in another two. Both quick, enjoyable, and easy reads.

Next Up
ZZ Packer's collection of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. I got a great deal on some books through Daedalus Books and this was one. I know next to nothing about her, but was intrigued by the strong blurbs she had, including John Updike saying "ZZ Packer tells it like it izz." Guess he could not resist the double zz.

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