Saturday, September 22, 2007

The First Novel

After all these years, I finally read what's considered to be the first novel in the English language, Robinson Crusoe. Written in 1719 by Daniel Defoe, who was going where no writer had (exactly) gone before, it holds up surprisingly well.

The main strength of the novel is the storyline, which is told by a first-person narrator, the title character. How many introverts over the years have had the fond dream of being alone on a desert island? How many people have longed to pit themselves against nature? Most of the reality shows on TV, as well as the popular drama series "Lost" can be directly traced back to this novel. We're talking universal appeal that has not abated over the years.

I hesitate to list my perceived weaknesses of the novel because Defoe was blazing new trails. Also, would they have been weaknesses to an 18th-century reader? Although I find Defoe's prose a trifle dry, maybe those readers were on the edges of their seats as they read (or heard) the story.

Most of my complaints stem from being a modern reader: Long convoluted sentences, unnecessary repetition of Robinson's first few months on the island, no chapter breaks, heavy moralizing, and Robinson's annoyingly complacent assurance that he was more "civilized" than Friday in all matters. (Gotta say, though...props to Robinson for permanently steering Friday off of cannibalism!) I probably should have read this when I was a lot younger -- when Robinson's smug colonialist attitudes and some of his strange inconsistencies would've gone right over my head.

In the end, the things I object to about the novel really aren't that important; Defoe was a product of his time as I am mine. Without question, Robinson Crusoe is a hell of an accomplishment. Did Defoe, when he sat down to write this book, have an inkling of what he was really starting, or was he just trying to earn some money?

In spite of not being a fan of the prose style, I love the language and vocabulary embedded within, and the storyline did pick up considerably in the second half. I was racing through to see exactly how and when he would get off the island, although I sort of knew, since there's a huge spoiler in the very l-o-n-g original title of the novel.

Would I recommend this book? If I were to read it again, I'd try to find a version that breaks the story into chapters. Also, I'd try to leave my 21st-century baggage parked elsewhere.

I'm going to try Defoe again, most definitely. Moll Flanders. My guess is that since Moll is fully engaged in life, and not alone on a desert island, and Defoe, by that time had worked out some of the kinks about novel writing, it should be an entertaining read.

My Canadian co-worker, Baldy, asked if he could borrow Robinson Crusoe when I finished it. Now Pablo's always been a kick-ass reader, but since we're not co-workers now, it's nice to see the other teachers on staff step into the breach and exhibit occasional signs of bookwormishness.


Dewey said...

I did read this much younger, so I did miss all the smug colonialism, etc. But I read Moll Flanders in college, and though I don't remember details, I do remember really enjoying it. So I hope you do, too! I should give it a reread.

raidergirl3 said...

I read Robinson Crusoe on so it had breaks in it and I read just a bit every day. It's a great site for books like this, that you want to read but aren't as, hmm, engrossing. You found the perfect phrase - smug colonialism - to describe what bugged me the most.
Nice review.

jenclair said...

It has been so long since I've read it, but I loved the way he improvised and tried to organize his life. It is, as you say, a product of a different time, as well as an innovative approach to literature. --:)I almost said "novel," and Defoe is considered the Father of the modern novel--

I don't know if I'd enjoy it as much now for the reasons you and Dewey mentioned.

John Mutford said...

When I was a teenager I took this book to a secluded beach and read it in one sitting. I think the environment added to my enjoyment and enthrallment with the book for sure.

Eva said...

This was the first book I ever gave up on as a child. My mom and I read a lot of classics together when I was elementary school, and a few chapters in we agreed that it was just painful.

My negative impression of it is so strong that just imagining trying to revisit it is producing shudders, lol.

Bybee said...

Thanks for the recommend.

I'd forgotten there was a I'll have to check it out.

I also liked the way Robinson set out improvising and organizing almost immediately.

What a great idea! They have beaches here in Korea, but I'd play hell trying to find a secluded one...or a secluded anything, for that matter!

It takes Defoe a little too long to get Robinson shipwrecked on the island, doesn't it?

Cath said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog... not sure how I managed to miss it before. I just wanted to recommend A Journal of the Plague Year by Defoe. It reads like non-fiction but is actually fiction and is one of the best books about the plague I've ever read. I read Robinson Crusoe when I was much younger and you're right, a lot of stuff went right over my head. Time for reread maybe.