Saturday, September 18, 2010

On "Martin Eden" by Jack London ****

Growing up, I read London's tales of dogs and wolves and of one seafaring man. I did not like London. I was told I read the wrong things. One of the books I needed to read, I was advised, was Martin Eden. Indeed, this book seems more intriguing than the animal stories that inspired no interest in me.

That said, I had a kind of love-hate relationship with this book and with Eden himself. Perhaps, that's what London intends, or perhaps London is Eden, which is also easy to read into the novel. I would prefer to think the former, to think that this is some kind of psychological study of a flawed character, more impressionist than realist.

The book starts with a silly love affair. In fact, perhaps, writing a love affair that doesn't seem silly is impossible to write. Perhaps, the cynical part of me will only accept love combusting. Watching Eden fall for this woman was rather agonizing.

But the text gets interesting from there. Eden is anything but a flat character. Rather, he is one of the most transformative characters I've ever read in fiction. He is constantly discovering new things about the world and about himself. In an effort to win this woman he loves, he educates himself, reads constantly. And he begins to write. He becomes a writer. He decides that this is how he will make his living. And he doesn't give up.

It's a good thing I didn't read this book when I was twenty. I'd have likely fallen for Eden's idealism, have believed that if you just worked hard enough you could be anything you wished--even a famous writer. Eden becomes, in his self-education, a man of incredible hubris. And in this also is one of the things that rather disturbs me about the book, because he never loses that hubris, never discovers that he isn't the great man he comes to think of himself as. Rather, he becomes disenchanted with the world, with all people around him--something not unbelievable, given that his education essentially divides him from others. Or does it? He thinks it does, but to think that, he also has to think himself better than all others.

The ending is somewhat disappointing as well, but I won't go into it here. However, the center of the book, as Eden discovers himself is fascinating. And even that love affair becomes fascinating. His girlfriend wants him to get a job. All his associates want that as well, want him to give up his dream, think he's being silly to pursue it so devotedly. They don't have faith in him. In the end, Eden thinks that this means that they don't love him. And maybe he's correct. Maybe, as long as one is successful, one wants to be your friend, but if one lives as a pauper and does as one wants, then one is a sponge and not someone people want to be around. Does this mean love is unreal or superficial? Maybe. But love is also--and this Eden never accepts--based, on some level, in circumstance, in action. Refuse to work, live poorly, why would a woman want a man like that? A man of riches, well, in the end, he can at least provide--as would have been nearly essential at the time London was writing. It's nice to think love conquers all, but reality is something else: it's cold, and love doesn't beat long when one partner refuses to supply for the needs of the other. In the end, Eden, nineteen at the start of the book, seems no more than his twenty-one years at its end, despite how much he's learned. You can read the novel here at Project Gutenberg.

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