Monday, October 23, 2006

Edgar Allan Poe

I've been reading a yet-to-come Finnish collection of Edgar Allan Poe's stories - it includes all of his short stories! The book has over 1000 pages and it must be a huge item. I haven't seen the actual book yet and I've been reading the book on a computer screen from a PDF file, which is pretty tiresome and doesn't really make justice to Poe. I was supposed to write a review of the collection for the coming weekend (when there's the Helsinki Book Fair), but I just won't make it in time. Should have the real book in my hands, I could lie back on a couch and dwell in Poe's fantastic countries...

To my mind, though, Poe seems a bit dated now. It's perhaps a mistake from the publisher (it's Teos, by the way) to publish all of Poe's stories, because his funny stories aren't funny in the least and his science fiction seems only obscure by now.

But the new translation (by the Harry Potter translator, Jaana Kapari) brings out some new issues in Poe. More than ever before (in Finnish, that is), he seems now firmly to have been a precursor (and a contemporary) to many French poets. We've known all along that Baudelaire admired Poe and translated him, but Poe's influence on the generation of Baudelaire (and the next one, and perhaps many to come) has been huge. Poe's parodies, pastiches, wordplay, exuberant examples of literary allusions, heteroglossia (hey, I still know these words!), they all make him actually a quite postmodern writer. (Or post-postmodern.) Young scholars and translators have been digging up some mid-19th century and Decadent writers who all have their resemblances to Poe and been hailing them - such as Gerard de Nérval and J.-K. Huysmans.

If Poe's stories were to appear now, they'd be hailed as new weird, and the writer would be compared to Susanna Clarke and her Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which I didn't like at all and which, to be true, isn't actually a part of the new weird movement at all, but I'd link the two). For some reason (someone should explain the cultural logic of this) it's the obscurity that appeals to the new readers and writers, and therefore Poe could now become out of the horror and the inventor of the short story ghetto he's been in.

So, could one say that Poe isn't dated, but he's very actual, because the new writers in the genre hark back to the cryptic language and weird self-invented mythology and literariness of Poe. He has been seen as the precursor of bad pulp writing (and there are scenes which could be out of Howard or Lovecraft), but he seems to be a precursor of great art. (Or "great art".) It's also evident now that Poe didn't only write exemplary short stories, but also played with the form - many of the stories are everything but strict short stories with a twist.

(I don't know if any of the above makes any sense to anyone, but I was thinking it out as I was writing. Will have to establish these thoughts later on in Finnish.)


Todd Mason said...

Well, the playfulness that Poe displayed was certainly echoed in that later American titan of horror fiction and related things, Ambrose Bierce, and not them alone (Twain, pretty obviously). I think those taking cues from Borges and his contemporaries have often not realized how old certain tradiions are...such as the hoax, and the very notion of mimesis in fiction stretching even into the fantasticated.

Juri said...

The tradition certainly goes further back than Poe - for example, Cervantes.

Todd Mason said...

Yep. He and Defoe came to mind for me, as well. I suppose some of the playful Greeks might've.

Todd Mason said...

I think it was the shared employment of Poe, Twain, and Bierce as journalists that particularly put me in mind of Defoe. Certainly, given particularly the journalism of the time, that gave the Americans a great set of opportunities for various sorts of literary mischief.