UPSTAIRS AGAIN – December 2012

By Rima Walker

In our library, fiction is downstairs and literature is up. It starts at the right end of the first long upstairs row, and then continues around the corner to the bookshelves behind it. These shelves house poetry, drama, essays, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, and novels. Most have been written by or about famous literary people such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Edith Wharton, and many others.  The fiction that we find here, the poetry, drama, and novels, deals with the same themes that the downstairs fiction offers—imaginary characters and plots invented by the authors (some of course are fictionalized versions of actual people and events)—but there is one particular difference: classic literature has “lasting value as art” according to the Cambridge Dictionaries. So Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays deal with murder and revenge, love, friendship, betrayal, war and politics; Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is a modern day tragedy. And Romeo and Juliet tells a story in which love does not conquer all. The novels downstairs deal with the same themes and many more that are reflections of the ones found in literature. Agatha Christie’s detective stories are fiction and so are her plays, yet The Mousetrap and Witness for the Prosecution had very long runs on the London stages.

If you like Stephen King’s novels and short stories, take a look at the one volume edition of Edgar Allen Poe we have that includes murder and mayhem and the supernatural—in short the macabre, particularly The Masque of Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, and less well known but equally as bizarre: The Descent Into the Maelstrom, The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade, The Assignation, and so many others. Delve into the blind poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost annotated by the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov for a portrait of the evil Satan who is, in my opinion, the most interesting character in the poem, especially next to the conventional middle class and very bourgeois Adam and Eve. Do not forget Henry James’ most famous ghost story A Turn of the Screw, which was made into a wonderful film as were many of the works mentioned here.

The very successful and very long-running London and New York Broadway play Cats is based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But Eliot also wrote great poetry like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Wasteland, The Hollow Men. If you love a good juicy murder, pick up Eliot’s verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral, a fascinating retelling of the death of Archbishop Thomas Beckett who opposed King Henry’s authority and paid for it dearly.

Love and passion are well covered in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the 1800’s novels of New York City’s high society and the men and women who flaunt the rules, and Henry James’ Washington Square about an heiress who falls in love with a man who may or may not want to marry her for love. Adapted as a play called The Heiress, it has been revived in New York. The excellent film was also called The Heiress.~