Saturday, March 26, 2005

Martin Eden, by Jack London

Jack London's no doubt best known for The Call Of The Wild. I've never known much about him, but presumed he was more in the minor league of writers. He died in his forties, and was at one time one of the world's most highly paid authors. He was also very prolific.

I'd never even heard of his novel Martin Eden until it basically fell in my lap, in a sparking, new edition. Interestingly enough, in my recent readings of George Orwell's letters and essays, he gives much praise to London as a novelist.

Above all else, this is a really good read. It's 400 pages, but you don't want it to end. Not that much really happens either. The novel is autobiographical, and describes London's rise from sailor to struggling author to successful author to disillusioned author. A lot of the novel, as you'd guess, is about writing and the writer's life.

The young Martin Eden, on the first pages, meets and falls in love with Ruth. She is 3 years older than him, a class above his working class station, and also university educated. The attraction is intensely sexual. Of course this is not described explicitly, but you feel it in every throbbing sentence (forgive my over-the-top adjective). His prose has a really earthy, no fuss quality about it. What's most interesting about the sexual attraction to Ruth is the way it is mixed up with an equally passionate attraction to literature. In order to better himself, and become Ruth's equal, he takes to ferocious study, which is described as a 'hunger'.

The middle part of the book describes Martin Eden's struggle for literary success. It's the usual story. Rejection slip after rejection slip. Poverty. Demoralisation. Family and friends start to look down on him as he refuses to work. Worst of all, Ruth's family don't want her to marry him because of his unpromising financial status. After much writing and barely making a cent for it, all the charm goes out of writing for Martin.

Then, as luck would have it, he becomes mega successful. He notes the ironies, which I think must truly transcend the ages. I recall Geri Halliwell from the Spice Girls bemoaning the fact that you're offered free diners when you're famous, but when you really need them is when you're struggling. Jack London says the same thing in Martin Eden.

There are many long tirades towards the end, decrying the many people who now flock to him, but in the beginning thought he was a lousy bum. Worst of all, Ruth's family send her back to Martin because he's so rich. The bitterness of this part of the novel is extraordinary - almost over the top. I thought, surely London would have figured out the psychology of this one before hand, and expected it. But I guess if you're in that actual position it may be far more disgusting to experience first hand.

But now all the charm of life and literature has gone. Where as in the beginning of the novel Martin lives on such little sleep because he needs to do so much, and is indeed filled with a lust for life, by novel's end he spends all his time sleeping. He's depressed. He decides to 'go native' by moving to Tahiti, eschewing civilisation.

On the boat over he throws himself into the water and kills himself, in most poetic fashion of course. (Interesting to note, in real life he died early, the result of drug addiction - a decadent, Wildean ending.)

This is really one very compelling novel. He mixes many opposing themes into a grand all-of-life narrative. This book really is full of life force, and its opposite, personal moral decay. Jack London writes like a natural, like he's got lots to say in a limited time.

The blurb on the front from Upton Sinclair declares it his best book. I doubt I'll read a better novel this year.

1 comment:

Jarred Hanner said...

There are different opinions on this subject.