2013 saw STONER by John Williams do something quite impressive. In a world of tweeting, status updates and Instagrams, consistently steering the modern reader to the Next Big Thing, it proves that there is still room for simple word of mouth; there is still hope for the sleeper hit. I would like to stand up and shout out to all lovers of the written world: take a glance at another classic that I feel is still pertinent for today, Jack London’s Martin Eden.
The book was first published in the Pacific Monthly magazine from September 1908 to 1909 and it is essentially a novel about writer’s frustration. The protagonist struggles to rise above his destitute circumstances through self-education, aiming to join the prestigious literary elite. Eden is motivated by his love of Ruth Morse.
An example of a KUNSTLERROMAN, the tale narrates the development of the artist.
The author Jack London had a lust for life, his credo was,
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot! I would rather be a superb meteor. Every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist, I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them, I shall use my time.
The origins of Martin Eden can perhaps be hinted at in his pamphlet for the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in November 1905,
I had no outlook, but an up look rather.
London cites how he felt he could rise above the colossal edifice of society, through cultivating his mind,
Muscle, on the other hand, did not renew. As the shoe merchant sold shoes, he continued to replenish his stock. But there was no way of replenishing the labourer’s stock of muscle. The more he sold his muscle, the less of it remained to him. It was his one commodity, and each day his stock of it diminished. In the end, if he did not die before, he sold out and put up his shutters. He was a muscle bankrupt, and nothing remained to him but to go into the cellar of society and perish miserably.
I learned, further, that brain was likewise a commodity. It too was different from muscle. A brain seller was only at his prime when he was fifty or sixty years old, and his wares were fetching higher prices than ever. But a labourer was worked out or broken down at forty-five or fifty. I had been in the cellar of society and I did not like the place as a habitation. The pipes and drains were unsanitary, and the air was bad to breathe. If I could not live on the parlour floor of society, I could at any rate, have a try at the attic. It was true, the diet there was slim, but the air at least was pure. So I resolved to sell no more muscle, and to become a vendor of brains.
STONER is a fantastic book and I would recommend all to read, but also indulge yourself with MARTIN EDEN. Sandpaper-voiced singer-songwriter, Tom Waits, references the novel on his 1974, Saturday Night album track, SHIVER ME TIMBERS, he drawls,
I know Martin Eden is going to be a-proud of me.
It would be a sin not to enjoy these books in your lifetime, besides who wants to be a passionless person in the pursuit of passionless intelligence? Please don’t take my word for it though, read it yourself.
If it’s good enough for Tom Waits, well, then it’s good enough for me.
Fountain pen image by Aaron Burden via Unsplash