Sunday, 29 May 2011
'The Final Solution," by Michael Chabon
Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
It's no secret that I love Sherlock Holmes. I wrote a little bit about this in my post "My forty books. Part 4: fiction." I chose 2 collections of Sherlock Holmes stories as part of my forty books that I could spend the rest of my life with. However, while I love some of the stories, I don't pretend to be an expert on the Holmes canon. I tend to re-read my favourites, while some others I haven't investigated.
Michael Chabon also quite obviously loves the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre, and is way more knowledgeable than I am. I recently read an essay from Chabon's collection, "Maps and Legends," called "Fan Fictions on Sherlock Holmes," as well as his novella "The Final Solution." Chabon has great affection and respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation and for his skill as a storyteller, and he has gone on record as saying that a Sherlock Holmes story was one of the first things that he wrote as a child. Anyone who is familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories will recognise the old man in "The Final Solution," although he is never named: he is a once famous detective, renowned and well-connected, who has retired to keep bees. Just in case you didn't get the references, the copy I had of this novella, published by Harper Perennial, contains an interesting extract from an interview with Chabon which makes it explicit that the old man is intended to be Sherlock Holmes.
In Chabon's story the elderly Sherlock Holmes is spurred into now unaccustomed action to stop a small boy from nearly electrocuting himself on the railway lines near his cottage. He is intrigued by the young boy, who seems to be mute but has a constant companion in an African Grey parrot that recites strings of numbers in German. When Holmes is visited by a policeman who asks him for help to solve a murder he initially declines - until he finds that the victim appears to have been trying to steal the boy's parrot, which is now missing. He comes out of isolated retirement - this is Holmes without Watson, which is a shrewd decision on Chabon's part because it frees him from any expectation that he will slavishly mimic the style of Conan Doyle writing as Watson - to try to reunite the boy with his parrot, Bruno.
The choice of title is indicative of Chabon's skill and subtlety as an author. To the Sherlock Holmes fan, the title inevitably evokes Conan Doyle's story, "The Final Problem," in which Holmes is supposedly killed at the Reichenbach Falls. However, the novella is set in 1944, and the title also serves to invoke the atrocities of World War II and specifically Hitler's genocide of the Jews. The historical context is essential to Chabon's novella: the young boy, Linus Steinman, is an orphaned Jewish refugee, and Holmes himself fears going to London because of the devastation that he expects to see.
Chabon's Sherlock is more vulnerable than Conan Doyle's. He is an old man whose still active intellect is trapped inside a body that is breaking down and complaining, and he dreads succumbing to death in a way that would be undignified and ridiculous. Yet, even more than that, he fears the loss of the critical faculties that he prizes the most, and that set him apart from other men. He has moments of paralysing, sickening terror when the world ceases to make sense to him, like "a page of alien text" that resists interpretation. Chabon's Holmes is a weak, frail old man to an extent that gives the novella's title an added poignancy: it does seem very likely that this will be the great detective's final solution.
I think it's fitting that Chabon's novella is so slight - in terms of length, but not content - as I have always felt that Conan Doyle showcases Sherlock Holmes more effectively in the short stories than the novels. This novella made me realise that the Conan Doyle stories that I like best are those that reveal the flickers of humanity and sympathy behind Holmes' coldness: those that momentarily reveal his affection for Watson, or his empathy for a - usually female - victim. I enjoyed Chabon's addendum to the Holmes canon and, although I don't want to give anything away, there is a particularly audacious chapter that took me by surprise. But, all things considered, I would rather think of Sherlock as a vital, seemingly invulnerable, driven - although addicted and flawed - great detective rather than Chabon's enfeebled, scared old man.