Archive for May, 2008

Edwin A. Abbott

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884)

I must admit some reticence towards this book. I had read only a summary of it and was uncertain how a novel told from the point of view of a square could possibly work. I think I might have been expecting twee, or a work flawed and essentially doomed by its concept. It is much to Abbott’s credit that Flatland works well, at times exceptionally well.

I feel that the first few chapters are too expository – a matter unavoidable as Abbott does have to set up an entire world completely alien to his readers – and does not truly come alive until our narrator, A Square, begins to discuss the colour revolution. It is here that I expected the novel to take one tack – with the introduction of colour into their world, the flatlanders would become receptive to the ideas of a third dimension – so was gladly surprised when Abbott began to parallel his own Victorian society through the flatlanders prohibiting such discussions as damaging to all.

Square proves an increasingly interesting narrator. There is a moment when he is speaking with a point and lauding over him his knowledge of another dimension, and this moment is wonderfully replayed when the Sphere first approached Square and Square refuses to believe. This wonderfully droll relationship is finally inverted when Square proves to be more completely self-aware when he postulates of a fourth, maybe even fifth dimensions.

Abbott is very good at using abstract ideas to explore such complex ideas as dimensionality, class structure, and sexual inequality. Not always is he entirely successful. As he indicates in his preface to the second edition many first readers accused him of being disparaging towards women (there is a review in the journal Nature which speculated that the Square must have “suffered a disappointment at the hands of a lady” (from Rosemary Jann’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition)). However, Abbott dodges this bullet nicely in the preface where he indicates that Square “writing as a Historian, he has identified himself (perhaps too closely) with the views generally adopted by Flatland.” So Square needed to express those thoughts to best illustrate the life-altering power of learning of a third dimension. Abbott, of course, cannot help but twist the knife a little deeper. He continues, “and (as he has been informed) even by Spaceland, Historians; in whose pages (until very recent times) the destinies of Women and of the masses of mankind have seldom been deemed worthy of mention and never of careful consideration.”

It is a telling point that Flatland is a novel that continues to transfix when one learns that there have been numerous ‘sequels’ or ‘reimagining’s’ of Flatland by at least five other writers.

Overall I felt that Flatland was interesting exercise in science fiction, and a novel whose slim volume betrays the depth of idea and thought within it.

As a somewhat unconnected comment, I wish to respond to Jasper Fforde who asserts in his Thursday Next novel The Well of Lost Plots that the writing of Flatland used up the “last [pure] original idea”. I think Fforde here is being a typical Sphere – he cannot see the next original idea because he believes his existence is the apex of reality.

As Kobo Abe’s two novels (The Woman of the Dunes and The Face of Another) from the Penguin Modern Classics range are unavailable to me at this time I shall have to, for the moment, miss them out. I shall also return with a review of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang shortly.

The next work I shall be looking at is The Letters of Abelard and Heloise.

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is available at Project Gutenberg.


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As this is a fluid process there will always be factors unconsidered that come into play. Today I have found one: where as I have been able to source most of the books on this list a certain few are proving difficult to find, particularly the two Kobo Abe novels: Woman of the Dunes and Face of Another. Though they are available on Amazon for someone who is currently unemployed and carrying this task out by using public library facilities buying them and the other unobtainable items might be tough. So another new rule is this:

9) Where a title is unavailable to me I will move beyond it and return to the missing title when I can afford to purchase a copy or my library is able to obtain it for me.

Look forward to my review of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang coming soon at Blogging the Classics.

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The challenge: To read the classics from A to Z. 


It is a challenge I have long thought of undertaking, and now with my life in a state of flux, where almost everything seems impermanent, transitorily temporal, to read the classics seems a grounding idea, a rooting force.


It is also a challenge born out of my admitted ignorance.  Though I know the classics by name – scanning the Penguin Classics list that shall be my guide there is barely a title I do not know – I feel I have read so few of them.  The books contained in the classics are – each in their own way – brilliant, exciting, enchanting, moving, despairing, humanising and above all real.  They are works that when I finish one I know I have read something of worth and that I have enjoyed it. 


Edward Abbey (image from the New York Times)


I have to admit that a lot of more recent fiction leaves me cold, uninspired.  It is not because they are by bad writers but that because of the way modern markets work there is little room for the novel of ideas, the poetry of thought or the theatre of the real.  If one compares the emotional complexities of, say, Madame Bovary with, say, the conundrums of Bridget Jones there is truth in both (and Bridget Jones may one day be in this list), Madame Bovary is still a more complex, breathing, living figure, whereas Bridget Jones seems nothing more than the sum of her jokes.


Every challenge needs rules and these are mine:


1)      That I read every book in the Penguin Classics list.  This list includes the Modern Classics line.  The list I have used is the one published on the Penguin website in May 2008 and updated with their release list until the end of 2008.

2)      That I read the authors in strict alphabetical order – so starting with Edward Abbey and ending with Stefan Zweig – and for authors with more than one work in the list that I attempt, where possible, to read their works in date order.

3)      That upon completion of a book I have to review it on this blog.  The review will be as intellectually rigorous as I can manage and examine the work in detail.

4)      Where an author as multiple titles on the list (more than five) I can, if so desired, read beyond that author by one book so long as I return to the previous author as the next book.  So I may, for instance, go Dickens-Diderot-Dickens-Diderot-Dickens-Dinesen-Dickens etc until Dickens is complete.  Too much of one author may become potentially stifling.

The Brothers Karamazov

5)      That I will reread works already read, with the exception of The Brothers Karamazov which I am currently reading and was the final inspiration to start this project.  The Brothers Karamazov review will appear when I finally reach Dostoyevsky.

6)      Where an author has other works that are not contained in the Penguin Classics list I may or may not review those other works.  I am here thinking of authors such as Balzac whose 143 works that comprise La Comédie Humane are not all in print.  The reviewing of these works is wholly dependent upon time and enjoyment factor.

7)      If Penguin issue new classics that should have been reviewed earlier in the list I shall endeavour to review them as quickly as possible.  If they will be appearing at some point future in the blog, then they shall appear at the appropriate time and place.

8)      That I may review other books not on this list if such a work impresses me enough to do so.  Here I will give special mention to Brigid Brophy’s Mozart the Dramatist which I have just finished and though I will not be reviewing it, I would have done had this blog been started then.


My final admission is this: for a number of years I worked in the English Department of a university and I feel it is shameful that I have read as little of these as I have (though I sometimes feel I have read more than some of my old colleagues).  I love literature and I am a writer, so it seems only right that I have read these works.  My final, final admission: I have never read a single Dickens.  It will be interesting getting to him and finally reading him and plugging that gap in my knowledge. 


In this list is the whole of human experience.  I cannot wait to wallow in it.

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