Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Classics Challenge #5

I started two other books -- Oliver Twist and Phineas Redux -- and decided the first was too grim and the second too late in Trollope's writing (and too focused on men in politics) for a February read. John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (available online at Project Gutenberg) was another title on my list, and reached to the top after a friend who teaches detective fiction graciously responded to my questions about Buchan's literary significance. He explained that Buchan moved the spy/suspense story toward greater realism in style and structure (as contrasted with someone like E. Philips Oppenheim) and was among the first to introduce such conventions as the hero pursuing a malefactor while himself being pursued by police. According to my friend Randy, 39 Steps is also "the book that establishes how one can truly disguise oneself, by BECOMING another person. No false whiskers or putty noses." The blurb on the library's edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps also claims that "During the First World War, [Buchan] became recognized as a great writer, both for his History of the War and his romances, including Thirty-Nine Steps . . . His writing showed superb narrative skill combined with knowledge of facts and background."

All of that leaves me feeling I should have taken much more from my reading of this novel. It was mildly entertaining, and, if I hadn't known there were supposed to be multiple plot twists, it probably would have been more suspenseful than it was.

Thanks to Randy's comments, I was more aware of the use of disguise and noticed that Buchan does employ it for multiple characters and also discusses the accompanying mindset. In the excerpted scene below, the protagonist, Hannay, adopts the role of a surveyor; Buchan includes a detailed description of the physical and mental changes involved, illustrating Hannay's gradual change in understanding of the concept (a change mirrored in the way later characters employ disguise).

I borrowed [the old surveyor's] spectacles and filthy old hat; stripped off coat, waistcoat, and collar, and gave him them to carry home; borrowed, too, the foul stump of a clay pipe as an extra property. . . .

Then I set to work to dress for the part. I opened the collar of my shirt--it was a vulgar blue-and-white check such as ploughmen wear--and revealed a neck as brown as any tinker's. I rolled up my sleeves, and there was a forearm which might have been a blacksmith's, sunburnt and rough with old scars. I got my boots and trouser-legs all white from the dust of the road, and hitched up my trousers, tying them with string below the knee. Then I set to work on my face. With a handful of dust I made a water-mark round my neck, the place where Mr Turnbull's Sunday ablutions might be expected to stop. I rubbed a good deal of dirt also into the sunburn of my cheeks. A roadman's eyes would no doubt be a little inflamed, so I contrived to get some dust in both of mine, and by dint of vigorous rubbing produced a bleary effect. . . .

My boots did not satisfy me, but by dint of kicking among the stones I reduced them to the granite-like surface which marks a roadman's foot-gear. Then I bit and scraped my finger-nails till the edges were all cracked and uneven. The men I was matched against would miss no detail. I broke one of the bootlaces and retied it in a clumsy knot, and loosed the other so that my thick grey socks bulged over the uppers. Still no sign of anything on the road. The motor I had observed half an our ago must have gone home.

My toilet complete, I took up the barrow and began my journeys to and from the quarry a hundred yards off.

I remember an old scout in Rhodesia, who had done many queer things in his day, once telling me that the secret of playing a part was to think yourself into it. You could never keep it up, he said, unless you could manage to convince yourself that you were it. So I shut off all other thoughts and switched them on to the road-
mending. I thought of the little white cottage as my home, I recalled the years I had spent herding on Leithen Water, I made my mind dwell lovingly on sleep in a box-bed and a bottle of cheap whisky. . . .

Earlier in the story, Hannay paid more attention to exteriors when constructing his disguises; later, the book will move toward the other extreme.

Much of the plot left me thinking I should be watching it as a Matt Damon movie: dramatic chases alternate with brief interludes in hiding at various quaint or ununsual locales, interspersed with the occasional explosion, unexpected corpse, or violent confrontation. Although the novel seems quite plot-driven, this page has an interesting set of questions examining the hero and ideologies in the work.


Blogger 3M said...

Congrats on finishing!

5:32 PM  

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