Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances

About a decade ago (2011 and 2008 respectively) I read Peter Beagle’s two most famous books, his debut novel, A Fine and Private Place, and his cult classic The Last Unicorn, the basis for the animated film. Both were very good dense, beautifully written literary fantasies, though I don’t trust my memory of them to say much more about them other than I really liked them a lot at the time, and that I look forward to revisiting them at some point. In one of the intervening years I picked up a copy of The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances at the annual Wake County Library book sale based on remembering how well I liked those novels and the amazing title. The collection largely delivers on the promise of that title.

This is a retrospective, published in 1997 (though I have a 2003 edition with a new preface by the author) that contains four of his more well regarded stories, a new story, two stories he wrote in college and three essays he wrote for hire in the 60’s. I will break down my thoughts by story.

Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros- Canon Worthy
This is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Beagle is famous for unicorn stories, so it makes sense that he would want to write one about the Indian Rhinoceros, scientific name rhinoceros unicornis. In this, a philosophy professor meets a talking rhinoceros who insists he’s a unicorn when he takes his niece to the zoo. What happens over the next 20 or thirty years I won’t spoil, but this is a legitimately great story.

Come Lady Death- Highly Recommended
Another beautifully written fantasy story. A noblewoman invites death to her ball, with unexpected consequences.

Lila The Werewolf- Recommended
This is one of his most famous stories and it is very good. A man moves in with his girlfriend only to discover that she’s a werewolf. As long as I try not to read this as a metaphor for menstruation, I really like it.

Julie’s Unicorn- Highly Recommended
Years after the events of Lila the Werewolf, the man from that story and his friend/sometimes girlfriend rescue a unicorn in a very odd way. Highly original.

The Naga- Recommended
Framed as a lost story recorded by Pliny the Elder, this tells the story of a king who falls in love with a mythical creature.

Telephone Call- Recommended
This is one of the stories he wrote in college. He classified it as juvenalia and as a pastiche of Salinger (or at least wearing that influence too heavily). Those are both true, but the story really did work well.

My Daughter’s Name is Sarah- Recommended
The other juvenalia story. Not as good as Telephone call, but still well worth reading

My Last Heroes- Recommended
It starts out talking about baseball, which I’m not at all interested in, but his tribute to Georges Brassens, a singer he loves, was moving.

DH Lawrence in Taos- Recommended
I haven’t read any Lawrence, but this was an interesting account of Beagle’s interviews with the surviving people who remembered the writer. I suspect I’d have enjoyed this more if I were more familiar with Lawrence.

The Poor People’s Campaign- Highly Recommended
This account of Beagle’s attendance as a journalist at the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 was never published prior to its inclusion in this collection as the magazine that hired him went out of business after he turned it in. In the climate of the past few weeks of protest, this resonates strangely. The concerns of that movement would not line up completely with the current concerns, but it is a fascinating look at the hopes for change of the time and how disillusionment set in with the assassinations that happened that year.

Beagle’s strengths are in his prose and his dense literary approach to fantasy. I really loved this book. Several of the stories and that last essay are likely to really stick with me.  And as I say above, Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros is an all timer for me. Even if I don’t return to the rest of the collection I will likely read that one many times.

Overall Collection: Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 41/75

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