Martin’s Confusion

A painting unrelated to the one described below

An oil painting caught and held him. A heavy surf thundered and burst over an outjutting rock; lowering storm-clouds covered the sky; and, outside the line of surf, a pilot-schooner, close-hauled, heeled over till every detail of her deck was visible, was surging along against a stormy sunset sky. There was beauty, and it drew him irresistibly. He forgot his awkward walk and came closer to the painting, very close. The beauty faded out of the canvas. His face expressed his bepuzzlement. He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas. “A trick picture,” was his thought, as he dismissed it, though in the midst of the multitudinous impressions he was receiving he found time to feel a prod of indignation that so much beauty should be sacrificed to make a trick. He did not know painting. He had been brought up on chromos and lithographs that were always definite and sharp, near or far. He had seen oil paintings, it was true, in the show windows of shops, but the glass of the windows had prevented his eager eyes from approaching too near. (558-559)

Jack London, Martin Eden (Library of America ed.)

The message that if you examine something too closely it can evaporate before your eyes is only one way of “reading” what I take to be the most significant opening image of Martin Eden. This part stuck with me throughout the novel—the problem of “tricks of the light” and errors in judgment; but underneath, there is a massive amount of intertextual connection with Tristan and Isolde. A sailor falls for an unattainable woman; but instead of the well-educated Tristan, we have the self-educated Martin.

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Photograph of Jack London by Andrew J. Hill, San Jose

After reading the article about Jack London in The Nation, I’ve been on a binge. London is amazingly candid about both his strengths and failings in the works I’ve read so far— Martin Eden, The People of the Abyss, and The Road. In sharp contrast to the piety of say, James Agee, London is blunt and forthright about his own appetites and laziness (at least when it comes to working for a living). What I find even more interesting is his candor regarding the aims and ends of realism.

Rarely have I read such a clear rendering of what Richard Lanham called the “CBS” style—clarity, brevity, sincerity— with its core dictum (be sincere whether you mean it or not) compared to the truest art: the art of the beggar.

Continue reading “Kairos”