Saturday, January 22, 2005

A most wonderful article

by Michael Chabon on Inventing Sherlock Holmes. Here's a very brief excerpt, but the whole thing is well worth reading:

Secret sharers, deception and disguise, imposture, buried shame and repressed evil, madwomen in the attic, the covert life of London, the concealment of depravity and wonder beneath the dull brick facade of the world--these are familiar motifs of Victorian popular literature. In 1889, J. M. Stoddart, American editor of Lippincott's Magazine, took Oscar Wilde and another writer to lunch, over which he proposed that each man write a long story for his publication. One of his lunch guests that memorable day went off and dreamed up a tale of an uncanny, bohemian, manic-depressive genius who stalks the yellow fog of London, takes cocaine and morphine to ease the torment of living in this 'dreary, dismal, unprofitable world,' and abates his drug habit by compulsively scheming to peel back the commonplace surface of other people's lives, betraying secret histories of violence and vice. Stoddart published Conan Doyle's second Holmes novel as The Sign of Four. Wilde, for his part, turned in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Victorian habit of seeing double, of reading hidden shame and secret feelings into ordinary human lives, reached its peak with the detective stories of Sigmund Freud, and persists down to our time. It is tempting to read Conan Doyle's biography as a classic Victorian narrative of this kind, of success haunted by shameful failure, marital fidelity that conceals adulterous love, robust scientific positivism that masks deep credulity.

I love, love, love Sherlock Holmes. Really, I can't describe the debt I owe to that collected tales volume I had in my childhood. The novel I've just written, Dynamite No. 1, is set in an alternate-universe version of the 1930s (Napoleon beat Wellington at Waterloo; Joyce writes operas, Wagner novels), but the thing I couldn't find myself doing without was these tales. Conan Doyle figures largely--he wrote those Sherlock Holmes tales in this universe despite its other divergences, and Stevenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde too, because despite the appeal of alternate history, I can't imagine the modern world (modern story-telling) without them. (In my world, Adorno and Heisenberg have changed places, so that Adorno--Teddy Wiesengrundt--came up with the uncertainty principle, and Heisenberg thought that Enlightenment wasn't all i was cracked up to be. Also in this version of Edinburgh, the modern police station is located in Conan Doyle Row, a street renamed for the author of Sherlock Holmes just west of the city center. And Freud's a pirate radio guru broadcasting out of Hamburg about the "Daedalus Complex," the idea that men invent things that their sons use to destroy themselves with.)

Anyway, I'm a huge fan of Chabon's--Summerland got me hooked, it is truly one of my favorite books of the past 10 years, I couldn't believe how good it was, and then I discovered the most wonderful Kavalier and Clay, which everyone must read and love... The thing to do is read these two novels. But his site is here, and I also alert you to the excellent blog of his wife Ayelet, an interesting author in her own right; the blog's called Bad Mother, and is completely addictive whether or not you're a mother, bad or otherwise.

Brief self-promotion: I wrote the introduction to the very reasonably priced B&N Classics edition of Jekyll & Hyde. Seriously, this one's a real bargain...


  1. Hi Jenny-

    That excerpt was an interesting read.

    Nice to know that you teach in the dept. of English at Columbia University, NY.

    Have a nice day.

    Thanks and Regards,
    Chirayu from Pune, India

    I came to your blog through a search for time in Edinburgh on Technorati. It's a small world, isn't it? :-)

  2. That's quite amazing! Thanks for letting me know where you're writing from, and good luck with your own endeavors.