Monday, August 09, 2010

Book Review: "The Adventures of Roderick Random"

As I've worked on the Libraries of Early America (and the Legacy Libraries in general), a few works of literature tend to appear again and again: Don Quixote, Shakespeare, Homer, Milton, &c.). One of these is Tobias Smollett's first novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random (first published in 1748; I read the 2008 Oxford World's Classics edition). I thought this summer would offer a good chance to dig into this picaresque tale and see if I found it as interesting and/or entertaining as previous generations of readers.

Published when its author was just 27 years old, and drawing inspiration at least partly from Don Quixote and Gil Blas (as well as on Smollett's own youthful experiences to a degree), this is the engaging and often hilarious story of a young man's roller-coaster ride through childhood and adolescence. Cast out by his father's family and forced to make his own way in the world, the narrator sets off from his native Scotland to try his luck in London. But no sooner does Roderick (or Rory, as he is affectionately known by some) catch a break or find a job he likes than the fates intervene and toss him to the bottom of the heap again (in all sorts of comical ways).

Assisted by his erstwhile and ever-trusting friend Strap, and his worthy uncle Tom Bowling, Random tries his best to make his way in the world, but it's a rare ten-page stretch in which his fortunes are not entirely reversed, usually but not always as a result of Random's own ingenuousness and trusting nature. His adventures take him halfway around the world, as a surgeon's assistant abroad the British fleet against Cartagena in 1741, and again abroad a slave ship bound for Jamaica. From the back alleys of London to the salons of Paris and Bath, Random sees it all as he tries to get ahead (and, for once, actually manage to stay there).

Smollett's incisive wit comes through not only in the telling and amusing names he assigns to his bit players, but also in the satirical treatment of British society, of which few elements escape his pen: among the areas most thoroughly treated are naval customs and culture, political knavery and preferment, and the linkages of monetary worth with marriage potential.

Well worth a read if you've not had the chance, and I'd advise taking your time with it; it'll bear a good close read, and you'll find more reasons to chuckle that way.

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