Monday, June 22, 2015

Classic #17

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015 for the category “Children’s Classic”
A bright child would have no problem reading this book. It is in fact published in an unabridged Puffin Classics edition for children.

The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912

Conan Doyle takes us to a plateau in South America isolated from the rest of the world. An English expedition has gone there to confirm the claim that prehistoric animals survive there. They not only run into pterodactyls but fight battles with hominid missing links. The first-person narrator is a young journalist. The narrative is a series of reports, which is a lively and suspenseful way of telling the story.

When this book was first released, it was a critical and commercial success. With its variety of scenes and incidents and clear characterization, it is no surprise it inspired film-makers.

 I recommend this highly to fans of adventure stories and readers into Conan Doyle’s non-Holmes productions. One point is that this is funnier than Holmes stories.

Mystery writer P.D. James credits Conan Doyle for his contribution to crime fiction: “He bequeathed to crime writing a respect for reason and a nonabstract intellectualism, the capacity to tell a story and the ability to create a specific and distinctive world.”

Furthermore, critic Dan Piepenbring asserts Conan Doyle influenced early science fiction. He claims this novel “remains the paradigm for a sort of swashbuckling supernatural adventure, full of bumbling professorial types and out-of-their-depth journalists and strapping, granite-abdomened men in pith helmets.”

I’m not sure the two professor-types in this novel are as “bumbling” as Piepenbring remembers. Socially inept, conceited and tactless  are not the same as bumbling.  Like our stereotype says about nerds such as Sheldon Cooper, the opinionated scientists in The Lost World are both narrow in their interests and passionate about generating knowledge and defending their claims. They argue vociferously because in Western science truth is arrived in adversarial fashion. Experts and newbies that are making new claims had better be ready to take their lumps before the bickering greybeards accept such claims. Conan Doyle’s acceptance of this combative style as the proper way to generate knowledge is evidenced in the excellent scene when the med students are hooting at Prof. Challenger’s claims at a public lecture.

… Creatures which were supposed to be Jurassic, monsters who would hunt down and devour our largest and fiercest mammals, still exist." (Cries of "Bosh!" "Prove it!" "How do YOU know?" "Question!") "How do I know, you ask me? I know because I have visited their secret haunts. I know because I have seen some of them." (Applause, uproar, and a voice, "Liar!") "Am I a liar?" (General hearty and noisy assent.) "Did I hear someone say that I was a liar? Will the person who called me a liar kindly stand up that I may know him?" (A voice, "Here he is, sir!" and an inoffensive little person in spectacles, struggling violently, was held up among a group of students.) "Did you venture to call me a liar?" ("No, sir, no!" shouted the accused, and disappeared like a jack-in-the-box.) "If any person in this hall dares to doubt my veracity, I shall be glad to have a few words with him after the lecture." ("Liar!") "Who said that?" (Again the inoffensive one plunging desperately, was elevated high into the air.) "If I come down among you——" (General chorus of "Come, love, come!" which interrupted the proceedings for some moments, while the chairman, standing up and waving both his arms, seemed to be conducting the music. The Professor, with his face flushed, his nostrils dilated, and his beard bristling, was now in a proper Berserk mood.) "Every great discoverer has been met with the same incredulity—the sure brand of a generation of fools. When great facts are laid before you, you have not the intuition, the imagination which would help you to understand them. You can only throw mud at the men who have risked their lives to open new fields to science. You persecute the prophets! Galileo! Darwin, and I——" (Prolonged cheering and complete interruption.)

I wonder if the incessant conflict in the search for truth also fits into Conan Doyle’s admiration of “manliness.”  Men ought to contend forcefully, honorably. Upon the defeat of their point of view, they should accept the truth. Shake hands, move on, hopefully, the next fight.  For him, real men are unpretentious, modest, dutiful and diligent in their occupations. These sterling qualities ought to be reflected where they live. The rooms of Lord John Roxton, the hearty well-tempered milord, have “extraordinary comfort and elegance combined with an atmosphere of masculine virility.”

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