Posts Tagged ‘George Eliot’

On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…

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How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 

G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Elaine Showalter: A Literature of their Own

March 1, 2016

51vPaDJijLL._AA160_I was having a clearout and tidy-up when I came across this book, which had lain unopened for half a lifetime; before passing it on to a charity shop, I glanced through what was one of the key texts when I was researching feminist science fiction all those years ago. It’s still brilliant.

Showalter wrote this introduction to women’s literature/ novels by women in the mid-1970s: I’m not aware of anything comparable before then. It’s very detailed and well-researched; the general introduction to women as writers gives an excellent overview and references a large number of texts which had previously disappeared into obscurity. She looks at the development of women’s writing from the historical, social, cultural, psychological and gender perspectives, dividing it into a number of key phases, which then receive fuller treatment in later chapters.

Major texts (Jane Eyre, The Mill on the Floss) and major writers – the Bronte sisters, George Eliot – are explored in detail and if you need them, there are pointers to a wealth of other writers and novels. Many of these will have been out-of-print for years at the time she was writing; many are probably now more easily available, either through the efforts of such publishers as Virago or the Women’s Press, or because they are out of copyright and therefore available as electronic texts via the Internet Archive or Project Gutenberg.

Showalter moves her reader logically from Victorian writers tot he first, early twentieth century wave of feminists and suffragists, exploring Virginia Woolf in some detail before ultimately condemning Woolf’s search for androgyny as utopian, and then moved into the 1960s second feminist wave, in which Doris Lessing figures largely.

Whatever perspective one approaches women’s literature from, it strikes me that this is still the must-read for context. Obviously it could do with bringing up-to-date to take account of the last forty years.

The myth of realism (2)

January 17, 2016

continued]

One of the things that is interesting to follow in the history of the novel is how, over time, novelists collectively learned and developed their craft. They learned to write detailed description to create a convincing and vivid sense of place. Nowadays, in our much more visual world, equipped with a vast stock of visual images stored in our memory, many readers tend to find these sections of early novels dull or boring, tiresome or tedious, but in their day they were very necessary. Writers learned how to write life-like dialogue, getting the tenses right, separating out the verbs of saying from the actual words spoken, focusing on how people actually spoke with each other. Just ask yourself, did people in Jane Austen’s time really talk to each other like that? And, as psychology began to develop as a science, writers began to strive to create psychologically plausible characters, and to explore their inner worlds. (Did you notice how many times I avoided using the word ‘realistic’ in that paragraph?)

In some ways, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch strikes me as a decent example of a realist novel, in the sense of attempting to portray a full cross-section of the society of its time: there is a place, and people from all walks of life, all social classes. The focus narrows down when you turn to a more naturalistic novel like Zola‘s Germinal, where the detailed picture of nineteenth century miners’ life and working conditions is no doubt impeccably accurate, but rather more in isolation from the rest of society, apart from conflict with the bosses.

Twentieth century writers zero in on the psychological angle because it is something new, something which fiction hasn’t had the chance to explore before: they take us inside the minds of characters, trying to portray their motivations, and their darker sides, too. I have always found Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a wonderful example of this. He successfully takes us inside the mind of a would-be artist, someone who sees himself as different from others around him, a Catholic boy wracked with torments about the penalties for his sexual sins. And the idea of the stream of consciousness, the mind pouring itself uncensored, unedited (which, of course, it isn’t) onto the page is a very powerful one.

Novelists are always in search of something new to explore, some angle on a story no-one else has yet developed. But is there anything left? Has the novel run out of steam and ideas? Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will probably realise that I think it has. It’s a long time since I came across something genuinely new. Ben Marcus‘ superbly surrealistic The Age of Wire and String was probably one, but travelling too far down that route exposes a writer to the risk of becoming incomprehensible…

And then there’s SF and fantasy. The more into fantasy you stray, the fewer holds are barred, the more one can invent, but however fantastical the creatures or the location, writers are hemmed in and restricted by the fact that they are human. Thus, Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky, loses us in an alien world rather than exploring and enlightening us.

to be concluded]

 

The best British novel?

December 8, 2015

51a2J0Q2vbL._AA160_I’ve been reading today that international critics have voted George Eliot’s Middlemarch the best British novel. Interesting.

Such polls of British readers have always had one of Jane Austen’s novels at the top if the ranking: is she too subtle or too parochial for non-British tastes? And what criteria were used for these international critics and their reading: did they have to read in English, or have they read in translation?

Some of the other choices further down the list I also find rather surprising: far too much Dickens, which may have good plots, but was certainly written by the yard; Virginia Woolf in second and third place? And Tristram Shandy – I’m certainly glad it’s appreciated by non-British readers, but also more than a little astonished. What, exactly, determines which British writers readers in other countries come across? I have a cousin who teaches English Literature at a university in China, and some of the texts he has to teach his students certainly caused me to raise my eyebrows…

Back to Middlemarch, which I do think is a very good novel. It’s broad in its scope, painting a panorama of English society at a crucial point in the country’s history; there’s a good range of characters, plenty of plot, and the whole is sustained for eight hundred pages or so, very entertainingly. And there’s plenty beyond this, to make the reader think about issues, people, ideas, language. I suppose one might put it in a similar class to social novels by Zola or Balzac, though I think neither of them have the subtlety of Eliot. Her canvas is broader than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, too.

Where does all this get us? Not very far, I feel. People from other countries also seem to have the picture of the nineteenth century as the great age of the novel. People love lists (shades of Umberto Eco here?) and league tables, and we can all get off on agreeing or pooh-poohing the choices in them. What would an English person’s list of the best French, or German novels look like, and what would a French or German person make of our choices? For that matter, what do you make of my choices in the ‘My lists’ section of this blog?

Gender and reading (again)

November 29, 2014

I’ve written on this topic before, but a news story this week, about recent research that shows we tend to read books written by our own gender, has had me thinking about the subject again. I did some quick (and not very systematic) research that showed that by far the greater proportion of books on my shelves were by men, and that, according to my reading log, this year only 21 out of 78 read books so far were by women…

Somewhere I’d fondly imagined that I might have done rather better: for instance, I spent the best part of three years in an earlier existence researching Feminism and Science Fiction (you will have to go to the Science Fiction Foundation in Liverpool to access a copy of my thesis) and that says something, to me at least, where my sympathies lie.

Considering my bookshelves more closely: pre-twentieth century, there’s some kind of a balance, with Jane Austen and George Eliot fully represented: I have a picture of the nineteenth as a women’s century in literature; certainly the two already named tower above Dickens and Hardy for me. When it comes to the twentieth century fiction, men win. In science fiction, it’s not so clear, particularly given my thesis, and if I were to award my prize for achievement in twentieth century SF, at the moment it would go to Ursula LeGuin, as you might guess from some of my recent posts, although Philip Dick would come a very close second. Again, with my travel writing section, men far outdistance women writers, but if I had to choose my favourites, they would be women travellers such as Ella Maillart and Isabella Bird.

Then I tried thinking about what is actually going on. More books, quantity-wise, are written by men. I’m a boy, so I like boys’ books? Simplistic, but some topics or subjects naturally appeal more to males than females, and I can’t be that much of an exception. I make those choices, and to a certain extent, there’s a self-fulfilling prophecy happening here. Historically, there’s always a sorting and sifting process going on with fiction in terms of what will stand the test of time, and it’s interesting that so much of the fiction written by women in the nineteenth century is at the top of the pile. Does this mean that Margaret Atwood and Pat Barker (to name but two) will stand out from the last century?

In the end, though it feels like a cop-out, I have to say that I don’t choose books by the gender of their authors, I choose books because they look tempting and I want to read them, and though I suppose if I went through my reading journal for the forty years for which it exists I’d still find a preponderance of books written by men, the books by women I have read have always made me think. Women do write about different things, differently, and inevitably pose a challenge to the other gender.

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