Blog about George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a novel of not knowing

img_1146

I have just now finished George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner, which I enjoyed. The novel is set in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and its plot goes something like this:

As a young man, Silas Marner, a weaver, is a member of a nonconformist church with Calvinist tendencies. Falsely accused of theft, he is excommunicated from his church. Divided from the only community he knows, he loses faith in humanity and religion, leaves his “native place” Lantern Yard in Northern England, and moves to Raveloe, a village in the Midlands.

(Lantern Yard and Raveloe are both Eliot’s inventions, like Middlemarch in Middlemarch. And while Silas Marner is much shorter than Middlemarch, the world Eliot conjures in Raveloe is nevertheless similarly rich and full and detailed, a real fake place, a spot in the Eliotverse).

Silas’s technological prowess at the loom finds him plenty of customers in Raveloe, and while he amasses a wealth in gold coins, testifying to his weaving’s popularity, he nevertheless remains isolated from the community. For a decade and a half he hoards his gold coins, counting them late into the night alone at home, and cementing his reputation as an eccentric with the Raveloe folk. He’s always the Stranger.

In the meantime, Raveloe’s wealthiest family, the Casses, continue their lives as obnoxious rich assholes. The elder son Godfrey harbors a shameful secret, the younger son Dunstan is an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, and Papa Cass—excuse me, Squire Cass—is a pompous prick. There’s a ruined horse, an opium-addicted wife, a Christmas Party ruined by a visit from big-A Anxiety. Etc.

Through a series of skillful plot-moves, Eliot meshes the Cass story line with Marner’s story weaving the two together around the novel’s central conceit: Silas Marner’s hoard of gold is stolen. Soon after, he finds a baby girl, whose golden curls he takes as a kind of symbolic exchange for his golden coins. The girl saves his life in the sense that she saves his soul. Eliot gives us this moving exchange between adopted father and daughter near the end of the novel:

“But I know now, father,” said Eppie. “If it hadn’t been for you, they’d have taken me to the workhouse, and there’d have been nobody to love me.”

“Eh, my precious child, the blessing was mine. If you hadn’t been sent to save me, I should ha’ gone to the grave in my misery. The money was taken away from me in time; and you see it’s been kept—kept till it was wanted for you. It’s wonderful—our life is wonderful.”

There is nothing like a character declaring something like “It’s wonderful–our life is wonderful” to signal an impending moment of the unwonderful, of course, and Godfrey Cass barges into the life of Silas Marner on queue. Old secrets come to light, etc.

But there is a happy ending, a classically comic ending, with a wedding and a garden and laughter and everything.

I do not think my plot summary spoils too much, or at least I very much hope it spoils nothing. I went into Silas Marner not knowing anything about the plot, and, after writing my little summary, I can see how the novel might be misinterpreted as a tad, uh, sentimental. And it does earn its emotional ending, that’s true. But, as in Middlemarch, it’s really the way that Eliot captures emotion—psychology, intention, bewilderment—-that so compels me.

Silas Marner is a novel about conscience and consciousness, anxiety and isolation, strangers and community. It is a novel about knowing, but it is also very much a novel about not knowing. The novel’s strange hero Silas Marner is a weaver, a symbolic doubling for an author, sure, but Silas Marner is a novel that points to its own loose threads.

This theme of not knowing is most evident in the final paragraphs of the novel’s final numbered chapter. There is a chapter titled “Conclusion” after the final numbered chapter, and this chapter “Conclusion” gives us the classical comedic ending of a wedding in a garden and, you know, happily ever after. This “Conclusion” gives the text a sense of resolution that the novel’s final numbered chapter withholds. I find Eliot’s evocation of not knowing in the final numbered chapter a far more persuasive indicator of the emerging modernism I read in her novels.

In this final numbered chapter (Chapter XXI), Silas takes his daughter Eppie to the North, to Lantern Yard. He wants to show his daughter his “native place,” but he also wants to confront Mr. Patson the minister of the church that excommunicated him. He wants to demonstrate his innocence to the minister. He wants this member of his old community to know himself the way he knows himself; he wants to know that the minister knows what he himself knows.

Silas and Eppie are aghast at Lantern Yard though—the place looks awful and smells bad; none of it is as Silas had known it. It is a new place, an industrialized place. Even the church where he had worshiped is gone, replaced by a factory. And his detective work does not pay off:

But neither from the brush-maker, who had come to Shoe Lane only ten years ago, when the factory was already built, nor from any other source within his reach, could Silas learn anything of the old Lantern Yard friends, or of Mr. Paston the minister.

When Silas returns to Raveloe, he confides in his friend Dolly Winthrop, who serves as kind of leveling conscience in the novel, telling her:

The old home’s gone; I’ve no home but this now. I shall never know whether they got at the truth o’ the robbery, nor whether Mr. Paston could ha’ given me any light about the drawing o’ the lots. It’s dark to me, Mrs. Winthrop, that is; I doubt it’ll be dark to the last.

Silas has reconciled himself to the darkness of not knowing; there’s no teleological neatness in this conclusion. Teleological neatness is reserved for “Conclusion” —for the wedding, the garden, the laughter. And it’s in those human moments, moments that serve to counter his early years of isolation, that Silas finds “light enough to trusten” the human race he once rejected. Silas weaves the dark loose ends of his old life into something new and bright, and in this way, preserves his soul.

Advertisements

Blog about October reading (and blogging) goals

On 1 April 2018 I set the silly goal of blogging about something every day of the month. I actually wound up meeting the goal, and it was fun (if sometimes exhausting). The April “Blog about” thing allowed me to just write in a way that was freeing. I have a tendency to let riffs and reviews languish, to leave my half-assed remarks on whatever I’m reading left unremarked, etc.

Anyway. Lately I’ve been Not Writing–in part because I’ve been extraordinarily busy with work and family, but also because it’s incredibly hot in Florida. (If this does not make sense to you, don’t worry. Look—sometimes it’s just too hot). So well anyway—I’m going to use 1 October 2018 as an occasion to declare my good intent to blog about something—books, film, art—every day or nearly every day. I’m not sure how it will go.

For now, some October reading goals, in no way prioritized:

Finish George Eliot’s Silas Marner.

This probably should have been the first Eliot novel I read—it’s more approachable (and let’s be honest, much, much shorter) than Middlemarch. Eliot’s major skill, it seems to me, is in evoking consciousness-in-action—that’s the impression I got after finishing Middlemarch, anyway. Like MiddlemarchSilas Marner is also a thoroughly convincing evocation of place. And, in its treatment of anxiety, it also seems to me an easy pre-Modern Modern novel.

Make a bigger dent in David R. Bunch’s Moderan.

Bunch’s Moderan stories connect into a strange novel told in a thoroughly singular voice. “Thoroughly singular voice” is a total cliché, but it’s true here: Bunch’s New Metal Man Stronghold 10 paints his plastic-coated post-apocalyptic world as if it were a perfect paradise. The language, the voice, is its own idiom—barking, visceral, phallic—perfectly suited to conjure a postnuked dystopian world. The great trick of it all is that the narrator Stronghold 10 views this dystopia as a utopia, resulting in a layer of ironic distance between author and speaker that creates a bizarre comic tension that’s ripe for misreading. The voice’s singularity though means that’s a very particular flavor; one doesn’t always want Stronghold 10 booming in one’s ear. I hope to do a few posts on Moderan this month, but if your interest is piqued, check out Rob Latham’s thorough review at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Check out Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand.

A review copy from Spurl Editions of William Weaver’s translation of Pirandello’s final novel arrived late last week but I haven’t made much time to check it out.

Finally read Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis.

It will happen.

Do a few posts on Conversations with Gordon Lish (ed. by David Winters and Jason Lucarelli).

I tried not to gobble most of these Lish interviews up too quickly—the experience of reading them is something closer to reading an essay or a transcript of a performance than a staid interview.

Read more of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe.

I unexpectedly dipped into Daniel Hoffman’s biography-criticism-memoir Poe x 7 this weekend, after randomly flicking to a page where Hoffman comments on Poe commenting on Hawthorne (all on allegory already aye?). The book is so strange and intriguing.

Return a book to a friend.

I asked a colleague, a musicologist, what he thought of Ravel’s Bolero and he loaned me Stephen Zank’s Irony and Sound: The Music of Maurice Ravel, and then narrowed his eyes a bit and clarified that the book should be returned. (Hardback U of P books ain’t cheap, people). A lot of it is way over my head, but Zank’s analysis often turns to literature—Baudelaire shows up as much in the index as Debussy—so there’s that.

Try not to gobble up all of Paul Kirchner’s forthcoming collection Hieronymus & Bosch.

You might have read some of Biblioklept favorite Paul Kirchner’s comic strips Hieronymus & Bosch at Adult Swim Comics. This Fall, French publisher Tanibis Editions will release a 100-page collection of Kirchner’s comic riff on life in hell. The digital advance they sent me looks great—I’ve tried to restrain myself from eating it all up at once.

unnamed (1)

Blog every day, even about nothing.

Camus, Eliot, and Kuper’s Kafka (Books acquired, 31 Aug. 2018)

img_0894

I went to my favorite used bookshop on Friday afternoon to browse, order another Gerald Murnane novel, and pick up a copy of George Eliot’s Silas Marner.

I spied a late fifties mass market copy of Albert Camus’ novel Exile and the Kingdom from Vintage Books. I fell in love with the cover (by George Giusti) and ended up picking it up, although I’ll admit I haven’t read a Camus novel since college (it was The Plague if memory serves).

Browsing copies of Silas Marner, I found this monstrosity:

img_0892

I don’t even know where to start with this cover. I mean, even the colors seem to clash. It doesn’t really come across in the photo, but this hardback has a cheap greasy feel to it. I initially assumed that it was some kind of TV or film tie in, but as far as I can tell…no. Horrifying. I ended up going with the Oxford edition with Ferdinand Hodler’s painting Unemployed on the cover.

When I got home, the mail had come. It included a copy of Peter Kuper’s Kafkaesque, which collects 14 of Kuper’s illustrated Kafka translations. Publisher Norton’s blurb:

Award-winning graphic novelist Peter Kuper presents a mesmerizing interpretation of fourteen iconic Kafka short stories.

Long fascinated with the work of Franz Kafka, Peter Kuper began illustrating his stories in 1988. Initially drawn to the master’s dark humor, Kuper adapted the stories over the years to plumb their deeper truths. Kuper’s style deliberately evokes Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, contemporaries of Kafka whose wordless novels captured much of the same claustrophobia and mania as Kafka’s tales. Working from new translations of the classic texts, Kuper has reimagined these iconic stories for the twenty-first century, using setting and perspective to comment on contemporary issues like civil rights and homelessness.

Longtime lovers of Kafka will appreciate Kuper’s innovative interpretations, while Kafka novices will discover a haunting introduction to some of the great writer’s most beguiling stories, including “A Hunger Artist,” “In The Penal Colony,” and “The Burrow.” Kafkaesque stands somewhere between adaptation and wholly original creation, going beyond a simple illustration of Kafka’s words to become a stunning work of art.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of George Eliot’s Middlemarch

[Editorial note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (I loved Middlemarch, by the way)I’ve preserved the reviewers’ original punctuation and spelling. More one-star Amazon reviews.].


too literary

No… just.. no

fancy words

a driveling tale

verbage is archaic

too many characters

characters seem fake

author of dubious character

Could not relate to characters

All of the characters are flawed

goes off on philosophical tangents

the sentences run on and on and on

I’m an avid reader and love many of the classics

a maze of literary, historical and mythological references

author whose moral frame of reference is so small-minded

Middlemarch is about a small town called Middlemarch

you won’t be able to fit it in your purse

This is trash, and bordering on fraud

the language should be readable

she can beat you into submission

This book was a book club read

BIG, FREAKING PLOT HOLE

I enjoy English literature

perpetual pontification

This is a Huge book

Sooooo wordy

100s of pages

Good ghod

lacks wit

Yuk

 

Seven (Long) Books I’ll Read Again

img_0775

Life is too short not to reread. Chosen somewhat randomly but also sincerely, seven books I’d love to read again sometime soon:

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

I read Mason & Dixon a few years back and then started to immediately reread it before getting sidetracked with something else. Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, I think that M&D coheres on a first read, but it’s so rich and full and crammed with life that it deserves another go through. In my completely subjective and thoroughly unnecessary ranking of Pynchon’s novels, I wrote,

Pynchon’s zany/sinister tonal axis, comic bravado, and genre-shifting modes rarely result in what folks narrowly think of as literary realism. His characters can be elastic, cartoonish even—allegorical sometimes (and even grotesque). Mason & Dixon takes two historically real (and historically famous) characters as its subject, and, in a wonderfully hyperbolic 18th-century style, takes the duo on a fantastic journey to measure the world. How does one measure the world though? Pynchon takes on seemingly every subject under the sun in Mason & Dixon, and the novel is very much about the problems and limitations of measuring (and describing, and knowing) itself. But what comes through most strongly in all of Pynchon’s fantasia is the weight of Mason and Dixon’s friendship. It’s the most real thing in a wonderfully unreal novel.

The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

A bit of a cheat maybe to put short stories on this list, but I’d love to set aside time to go through all of them at once.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I finished Middlemarch last month. Eliot’s novel captures consciousness in action in a remarkably deft, often ironic, but also very sweet way—particularly the consciousness of her hero Dorothea Brooke, who is one of my favorite characters in literature. I wrote about Dorothea in a post earlier this year:

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.

The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara

I read Dara’s cult debut in a dizzy rush about five years ago, and have meant to reread it again since then. Like Middlemarch, Dara’s novel is very much about consciousness and how consciousness operates. From a blog post a few years back:

I am really loving this book so far, this novel that moves through consciousnesses in a (yes, I’ll use that cliché that book reviewers so often grab for) dazzling performance, shifting through minds, monologues, dialogues, always a few steps (or more) ahead of its reader, beckoning though, inviting, calling its reader to participate in discussions (or performances) of art, science, politics, psychology, education, loneliness, ecology, family, fireflies, radio plays, alienation, voting trends, Chomskyian linguistics, Eisensteinian montage, theft, Walkman Personal Stereos, semiotics, one-man shows, drum sets, being ventriloquized—a novel that takes ventriloquism as not just a theme (as we can see in the citation above) but also as a rhetorical device, a novel that ventriloquizes its reader, throws its reader into a metaphorical deep end and then dramatically shifts the currents as soon as the reader has learned to swim, a novel of othernesses, a novel that offers content through conduits, patterns that coalesce through waves, a novel composed in transfer points, each transfer point announcing the limitations of first-person perspective, the perspective that the reader is logically and spiritually and psychologically beholden to—and then, perhaps, transcending (or at least producing the affective illusion of transcendence of) first-person perspective, and this (illusion of) transcendence, oh my, what a gift, what a gift . . .

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

I had a false start with The Recognitions maybe 10 years ago, and then made it through a few years after that. I’ve since read Gaddis’s novel J R twice, and I think it’s the superior novel—but I’d like to revisit The Recognitions to see how accurate that assessment is. In my review I wrote:

The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.

I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus is the kind of literary masterpiece that survives they hype that surrounds it. I’ve read it straight through three times and will read it through three more given the chance. I’ve written at least seven “reviews” of 2666 on this site, but this one on the novel’s intertextual structure is probably my best effort.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick forever!

Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, etc., June and July 2018 (and an unrelated griffin)

bibicnsh_ydn_2400x2400
Grifo de California, 2017 by Walton Ford (b. 1960)

Links to reviews, riffs, etc. I wrote in June and July of 2018–

I continued and then apparently abandoned the silly project of trying to write reviews on every film I watched or rewatched this summer:

I hated both Ant-Man and The Disaster Artist, which I made a bad double feature out of.

I loved Lady Bird though.

I took my son to see Pom Poko in the theater as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 program.

I finally watched David Cronenberg’s film Map to the Stars and was not especially impressed.

I watched Blade Runner 2049 a second time and annotated my original review.

And I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man for the first time in ages and boy is it really really good.

Trying to write about every film I watched what was exhausting and I’m not really sure what I got out of it, if anything. Here are the other films that I remember watching and not writing about:

All eight of the Star Wars films, again, sort of, with my kids.

Samsara (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)—bought a new TV for the first time in eleven years and used this film to test the screen. Ended up watching it twice.

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)—another one I watched with the kids, although I’m not sure it was for them. It wasn’t for me. A lot of wasted potential in this one.

The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, 1984)—I think this one holds up well. I remember renting it for 99 cents from the Hollywood Video next to my apartment in Gainesville, FL in 1997 and thinking it was a work of genius.

Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazkai, 1997)—in the theater for the first time, again as part of Ghibli Fest 2018. I wrote about the film here a few years ago.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014). Watched it again last night on Netflix. I wrote about it here. I like a film that is basically a mood.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 at 8.40.39 PM

I finally read George Eliot’s longass wonderfulass novel Middlemarch  this summer. I wrote about wanting to reread it from about halfway through 

I also wrote about finishing Middlemarch, but edited out a few paragraphs about how much the last paragraphs of Eliot’s novel reminded me of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 at 8.41.11 PM

In what is either strange felicity or my need to connect everything to Whitman, I did connect the end of Song to one of Denis Johnson’s posthumous stories, the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. 

Writing about “Largesse” was the first of an intended five part series on each of the stories in Johnson’s last book; I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here and “Strangler Bob” here. (Links to the full texts of those stories are in each of those pieces, by the way).

I recycled a review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile after I saw its new cover in a Charleston bookstore.

I also wrote about how weak and ineffectual I think George Saunders’ “satire” of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is. I see Saunders’ piece as part of an obsolete postmodernist mode that cannot viscerally engage the emerging zeitgeist. I wrote,

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

Screenshot 2018-07-31 at 8.42.52 PM

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

Screenshot 2018-06-12 at 8.35.14 PM
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. 

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)

img_8860

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)

 

20120902-141345.jpg

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

20120426-161440.jpg

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.

20120426-161452.jpg

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.

20120426-161503.jpg

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

20120426-161518.jpg

 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

20120407-140053.jpg

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.