Blog about reading Middlemarch (and wishing I was rereading Middlemarch)

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Detail of a portrait of Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) at age 30 by François d’Albert Durade (1804–1886)

There should be a word in some language (perhaps not yet invented—word or language) to describe the feeling of Having pushed far enough into a very long novel (a novel that one has cracked into more than once) to the point that one now feels one can finally finish it.

I have felt this specific feeling a number of times in my life after finally sinking into long novels like Moby-DickGravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest. There’s a sort of relief mixed into this (as-yet-unnamed?) feeling, a letting go even, where the reader (me, I mean) surrenders to the novel’s form and content. Finally freed from the idea of reading the novel, I am able to read the novel.

There are 86 numbered chapters in George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch (not counting a “Prelude” and a “Finale”). I have just finished Chapter XXXV—not exactly a half-way point, but far enough in to finally feel like the story and the style are sticking with me. I’ve been reading a public domain copy on my iPad, after having abandoned my 1977 Norton Critical Edition—the Norton’s print is too cramped (and maybe my eyes are starting to go as I approach 40). Also, the Norton annotations are useful but too intrusive for a first read. I found myself utterly distracted by the Norton footnotes after about 50 pages; switching to a footnote-free version has alleviated a lot of the anxiety I initially felt about trying to fully comprehend Eliot’s novel in its own historical context. Dispensing with the footnotes allowed me to finally sink into Middlemarch and appreciate its wonderful evocation of consciousness-in-action.

So far, my favorite character in Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke. In part my allegiance to her is simply a matter of the fact that she initially appears to be the novel’s central character—until Eliot swerves into new narratives near the end of Book I (Book I of VIII, by the way). But beyond traditional formal sympathies, it’s the way that Eliot harnesses Dorothea’s consciousness that I find so appealing. Eliot gives us in Dorothea an incredibly intelligent yet palpably naive young woman who feels the world around her a smidge too intensely. Dorothea is brilliant but a bit blind, and so far Middlemarch most interests me in the way that Eliot evokes this heroine’s life as a series of intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic revelations. We see Dorothea seeing—and then, most remarkably, we see Dorothea seeing what she could not previously see.

There are other intriguing characters too, like Dr. Tertius Lydgate, the wastrel Fred Vincy, and the would-be-Romantic Will Ladislaw (who has like, totally smoked opium, just so you know). I’m particularly fond of Dorothea’s goofy uncle Arthur Brooke.

I won’t bother summarizing the plot thus far of the novel, which is really a bunch of plate spinning, but rather offer this sentence from the novel itself:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

There’s also another self-summarizing passage a few chapters before this one, worth citing here:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent…

Each of us is a reader reading other lives as scratches on a mirror or trees in the distance, and in our reading we incorporate them into our own consciousness, our own narrative. Middlemarch is very good at evoking this social reality.

I started this blog post by trying to describe a very specific feeling for which I don’t have a word—namely, and again: Having pushed far enough into a very long novel to the point that one now feels one can finally finish it. I suspect that this is a not-uncommon feeling. I’m not so sure though of how common the other feeling I have while reading Middlemarch is. I keep feeling (feeling, not thinking): I wish that I was rereading Middlemarch and not reading Middlemarch. If I were rereading Middlemarch I could make much more sense of those mirror scratches and those trees in the distance; if I were rereading Middlemarch, I could feel the feeling of reading Middlemarch more. There is an obvious answer to this desire, of course. I can finish reading Middlemarch. Then I can reread Middlemarch. 

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Even your ugly furniture (From Eliot’s Middlemarch)

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent…

From George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.

Eliot’s Middlemarch, Murdoch’s Net (Books acquired, 2 Jan. 2018)

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I put George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Irish Murdoch’s The Bell on my 2018 Good Intentions Reading List. I didn’t own either of these novels, which necessitated a trip to my friendly neighborhood bookstore (a labyrinthine maze comprised of, like, 2 million books. I’m not exaggerating). Improbably, I couldn’t find a copy of The Bell, so I picked up a nice Penguin edition of Under the Net. I also couldn’t find William Gass’s big novel The Tunnel—another of the books I put on my 2018 list that I don’t own—but I knew it wasn’t there because I’ve been checking for its fat spine for over a year. I’m gonna have to buy it elsewhere, alas. (I saw a copy there a few years ago and held off buying it because I was buying William Gaddis’s The Recognitions at the time, and buying two great big novels like that seemed too indulgent. Alas). My beloved store did of course have like a gajillion copies of War and Peace (which it’s weird I don’t have a copy), but my internet pal BLCKDGRD told me he’d send me one, so I held off. Plus—like, Middlemarch is already pretty damn long. I picked up the Norton Critical Edition, just out of habit, and then downloaded the e-book to my iPad via Project Gutenberg. My Norton Critical Edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lists “Samuel Langhorne Clemens” as the author, and not “Mark Twain”—why does this Norton list “George Eliot” and not “Mary Anne Evans”? I actually don’t really care that much.

So who else is reading Middlemarch this year?

 

I Riff on Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, Which I Haven’t Read (Book Acquired, 8.22.2012)

 

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1. Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel The Marriage Plot is out in paperback from Picador this month. I haven’t read it.

2. I like the cover, a sort of watercolor job on thick textured paper.

3. I read Eugenides’s first novel The Virgin Suicides in 1997 or 1998. I was a freshman or sophomore in college. It was one of those books that everyone had on their shelves (I read my girlfriend’s roommate’s copy in maybe two sittings). I recall liking its style but the story had no emotional impact on me.

I was suspicious of the talent everyone ascribed to Eugenides.

4. I bought Eugenides’s second novel Middlesex in a train station in Rome. I bought it because I needed something to read. I read most of it on trains. This was the summer of 2005 or 2006, I think.

5. Middlesex is one of the first novels I can think of that I read and thought, “Here is a writer trying to fool me. Here is a writer trying to hide a fairly predictable plot under a mask of thematic importance. Here is a writer trying to hide mundane and often clunky prose beneath relevant issues. Here is an author trying to hide a lack of penetrating insight beneath the dazzle of historical sweep.”

6. Middlesex: The seams show. It’s literary-fiction-as-genre. And I have no problem with that. I wish it was weirder.

7. Here’s the back cover blurb for The Marriage Plot:

It’s the early 1980s. In American colleges, the wised-up kids are inhaling Derrida and listening to Talking Heads. But Madeleine Hanna, dutiful English major, is writing her senior thesis on Jane Austen and George Eliot, purveyors of the marriage plot that lies at the heart of the greatest English novels. As Madeleine studies the age-old motivations of the human heart, real life, in the form of two very different guys, intervenes—the charismatic and intense Leonard Bankhead, and her old friend the mystically inclined Mitchell Grammaticus. As all three of them face life in the real world they will have to reevaluate everything they have learned.

8. I sort of feel like I’ve already read the novel after reading this. Or maybe I feel like I could guess the trajectory of the novel.

9. Okay, so maybe I should read the first few pages . . .

10. I stopped on page 11, at this paragraph:

The cafe had just opened. The guy behind the counter, who was wearing Elvis Costello glasses, was rinsing out the espresso machine. At a table against the wall, a girl with stiff pink hair was smoking a clove cigarette and reading Invisible Cities. “Tainted Love” played from the stereo on top of the refrigerator.

Espresso! Cloves! Soft Cell! Calvino! Costello!

Okay. Maybe it’s Gloria Jones’s version of “Tainted Love.”

Anyway. There’s something insufferable about the paragraph.

I suppose I need to name or define the “something.”

11. Let me backtrack then, to the first paragraphs of the novel, to its first line even: “To start with, look at all the books.”

I like that as an opening line. I do. And I don’t mind an intertextual read. I’ll even accept this opening gambit as a form of characterization for our heroine Madeleine—this listing of authors—Wharton, Henry James, “a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope” (a smidgen!), “good helpings of Austen, George Eliot” etc. etc. We learn she reads Collette “on the sly” (who is stopping her?).

The references pile up: The surroundings of College Hill are compared to a “Charles Addams cartoon or a Lovecraft story”; those damn RISD kids are “blaring Patti Smith”; Madeleine has borrowed her roommate’s Betsey Johnson dress; you might recognize Madeleine by her “Katherine Hepburn-ish cheekbones and jawline”; etc.

For, fun, let me pick three pages at random:

On page 75, we find out that someone named Dinky is “a frosted blonde with late-de Kooning teeth.”

Page 187 is clean.

Page 87: Roland Barthes. Harpo Marx. Grolsch beer.

(I can’t help but skim over 86, a motherlode: Kafka, Borges, Musil, Vanity FairThe Sorrows of Young Werther, Derrida).

12. Erudition in a novel can be a fine thing, and works that explicitly reference and engage other works can be marvelous (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is an easy example to go to here). But references can also be used lazily as placeholders for real meaning, or even as a substitution for an entire milieu. (This is what I mean by the “something insufferable,” re: point 10).

13. There seems to be a trend in genre-bound “literary fiction” novels (again, I mean literary-fiction-as-genre) that lazily tie themselves to another, greater novel, without actually adding to the themes. I’m thinking explicitly of Franzen trying to borrow some of the weight of War and Peace in Freedom and Chad Harbach’s bid for Moby-Dick comparisons in The Art of Fielding. My intuition is that Eugenides is doing the same thing in The Marriage Plot.

14. Of course I’m probably (improbably enough) not the ideal audience for The Marriage Plot, not despite the fact but because of the fact that I happen to dig Talking Heads and Derrida and Barthes and literary theory &c. A romcom that involves a semiotics seminar as a setting is especially unappealing to me.

My wife, on the other hand, snapped up the copy of The Marriage Plot that the kind people at Picador sent me. I had to pull it from her night stand to write this riff. I’ll get her reaction down the line, which will certainly be more informed than my own.

 

Books Acquired, This Week and Last

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Reading for Our Time by J. Hillis Miller from Columbia University Press. Their copy:

A masterclass in attentive reading that opens up brilliant insights into two of George Eliot’s novels. J. Hillis Miller shows how reading Eliot’s great novels Adam Bede and Middlemarch can provide the pleasure and insight unique to reading fiction. The readings focus on famous passages in which the narrator reflects about the story and its characters. What do these passages really say? What role does Eliot’s figurative language play in her storytelling? These stories deal with uncovering their characters’ ideological illusions. By understanding how to expose these illusions, readers will be able to recognize how easy it is to be taken in by such mistakes, both in the personal and in the political worlds.

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Mary S. Lovell’s The Churchills is new in trade paperback from Norton. From the LA Times review:

Intelligent and well-written, like all of Mary S. Lovell’s biographies, “The Churchills” provides a vivid introduction to the family of English aristocrats whose nation-preserving achievements stretch from the Battle of Blenheim to the Battle of Britain and beyond. The Churchills are a much-chronicled clan, and although footnotes indicate that Lovell has read all the relevant books and delved into vast archives of personal papers, there’s nothing startlingly new here. Instead, as she did in “The Mitford Girls,” the author synthesizes a variety of familiar material to create a lively collective portrait.

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Diane Keaton’s memoir is out in trade paperback. It’s a handsome book with stylish color inserts. New from Random House.

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 Great cover on A Simple Murder, new from Eleanor Kuhns. Publisher Minotaur/Macmillan’s write-up:

Five years ago, while William Rees was still recovering from his stint as a Revolutionary War soldier, his beloved wife died. Devastated, Rees left his son, David, in his sister’s care, fled his Maine farm, and struck out for a tough but emotionally empty life as a traveling weaver. Now, upon returning unexpectedly to his farm, Rees discovers that David has been treated like a serf for years and finally ran away to join a secluded religious sect—the Shakers.

Overwhelmed by guilt and hoping to reconcile with his son, Rees immediately follows David to the Shaker community. But when a young Shaker woman is brutally murdered shortly after Rees’s arrival, Rees finds himself launched into a complicated investigation where the bodies keep multiplying, a tangled web of family connections casts suspicion on everyone, and the beautiful woman on the edge of the Shaker community might be hiding troubling ties to the victims. It quickly becomes clear that in solving Sister Chastity’s murder, Rees may well expose some of the Shaker community’s darkest secrets, not to mention endanger his own life.

An atmospheric portrait of a compelling time in American history, A Simple Murder is an outstanding debut from Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America’s 2011 First Crime Novel Competition Winner.

Book Shelves #15, 4.08.2012

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1st Gent. How class your man? – as better than the most,

Or, seeming better, worse beneath that cloak?

As saint or knave, pilgrim or hypocrite?

2nd Gent. Nay, tell me how you class your wealth of books

The drifted relics of all time.

As well sort them at once by size and livery:

Vellum, tall copies, and the common calf

Will hardly cover more diversity

Than all your labels cunningly devised

To class your unread authors.

—George Eliot, Middlemarch, epigraph to Chapter 13

Book shelves series #15, fifteenth Sunday of 2012

A new book-case this week; the shorter triplet of the twin ladders seen here. What do the volumes on this top shelf hold in common? They are hardback. That’s about it. Yes, I actually go through The Riverside Shakespeare every now and then, especially when sparking new ideas for class lectures. The Balthus memoir is pretty good. No, I never finished Godel, Escher, Bach. It’s not hardback, come to think of it. The Fallada books are good stuff. Will Dylan ever finish up the Chronicles? Probably not. Maybe so. Who knows? We all love Shel Silverstein, of course.

“Steinbeck Is Sincere” — William T. Vollmann on East of Eden

William Vollmann writes about John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (excerpted from Imperial via Expelled from Eden)—

The book of his which I admire the most is East of Eden. For a decade now the character of Kate, whom some critics find unconvincing has haunted my head; she’s horrific, she’s pathetic, she’s steady and successful and lonely; she is perfectly what she is. The retelling of the Cain and Abel story is brilliant, the landscape descriptions lovely and lush, the plotting as careful and convincing as the best of George Eliot. And of course there’s a message, a flaw, personified by a Chinese servant who tells us, sometimes at great length, what to think. But Lee has never annoyed me. He speechifies intelligently, at times wittily, and sometimes compassionately. Do I care that nobody I’ve ever met talks like that? He is sincere because Steinbeck is sincere. And this is what I love about Steinbeck most of all, his sincerity.