Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.

Monsters

Reading Middlemarch with no particular desire to finish reading Middlemarch brought home to me just how much I love reading what Henry James denounced as ‘loose baggy monsters’ or very long books (as defined, say, of more than five hundred pages).

I don’t think Middlemarch is that loose or baggy, quite the opposite in fact. It is a novel of immense discipline with a great deal of thought put into the architecture and the skeleton building. Nor do I think looseness is such a bad thing in a novel. Looseness gives one room to breathe, to slow down.

There is something in the psychological experience of burrowing into a long and expansive novel that is very special. That isn’t too say I don’t admire writers who can achieve the concentrated unity of an effective shorter novel, but all too often they rely overly much on plot, creating those tiresome “page-turners” that end up being exhausting and ephemeral. Besides, are monsters such a bad thing? The word stems from monstrum, something that upsets thought, that lives at the edge of reason, and that is an apt word to underpin the unsettling, time-shifting nature of a long, complex novel.

So I have in my sights some other monsters that I’ve not read before. This might be a year I read only another dozen books:

  1. Alexander Theroux, Einstein’s Beets
  2. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
  3. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet
  4. Cora Sandel, Alberta trilogy
  5. Peter Handke, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay
  6. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda
  7. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  8. Divine Comedy (Dorothy Sayers’ translation)
  9. Uwe Johnson, Anniversaries
  10. Thomas Mann, Joseph and his Brothers
  11. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage (last four books to finish)
  12. Maybe more Nádas, or Tolstoy, or Weymouth Sands, or rereading Proust or Karamazov, or . . .

If you have a favourite monster I’ve not mentioned please drop into comments.

Her Wifely Devotedness

Evidence of George Eliot’s brilliance is easy to find in Middlemarch, but there are some passages incapable of any discernible improvement:

“There was no denying that Dorothea was as virtuous and lovely a young lady as he could have obtained for a wife; but a young lady turned out to be something more troublesome than he had conceived. She nursed him, she read to him, she anticipated his wants, and was solicitous about his feelings; but there had entered into the husband’s mind the certainty that she judged him, and that her wifely devotedness was like a penitential expiation on unbelieving thoughts — was accompanied with a power of comparison by which himself and his doings were seen too luminously as a part of things in general. His discontent passed vapour-like through all her gentle loving manifestations and clung to that inappreciative world which she had only brought nearer to him.
Poor Mr. Casaubon! This suffering was the harder to bear because it seemed like a betrayal: the young creature who had worshipped him with perfect trust had quickly turned into the critical wife; and early instances of criticism and resentment had made an impression which no tenderness and submission afterwards could remove. To his suspicious interpretation Dorothea’s silence now was a suppressed rebellion; a remark from her which he had not in any way anticipated was an assertion of conscious superiority; her gentle answers had an irritating cautiousness in them; and when she acquiesced it was with a self-approved effort of forebearance. The tenacity with which he strive to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear.”

Invisible Thoroughfares

George Eliot structured Middlemarch as an eight part novel, serialised bi-monthly, resulting in a four-volume book. Each of the sections, she wrote, have a ‘certain unity and completeness within itself’. Each, she expected would be the ideal length to read at one time. I’m finding my reading going slower than Eliot would have preferred, partly down to extensive travelling, but also as it is an intense novel that rewards care.

In writing about her young doctor Lydgate, on whom Charles Bovary casts a shadow, it seems to me that she outlines in part her own intellectual approach to writing Middlemarch:

“But these kinds of inspiration [cheap narration] Lydgate regarded as rather vulgar and vinous compared with the imagination that reveals subtle actions inaccessible by any sort of lens, but tracked in that outer darkness through long pathways of necessary sequence by the inward light which is the last refinement of Energy, capable of bathing even the ethereal atoms in its ideally illuminated space. He for his part had tossed away all cheap inventions where ignorance finds itself able and at ease: he was enamoured of that arduous invention which is the very eye of research, provisionally framing its object and correcting it to more and more exactness of relation; he wanted to pierce the obscurity of those minute processes which prepare human misery and joy, those invisible thoroughfares which are the first lurking-places of anguish, mania, and crime, that delicate poise and transition which determine the growth of happy or unhappy consciousness.”

287,644

11 Mar 2014

All writing is autobiography. My blog, I discovered today, comprises almost 300,000 written words of autobiography, a meandering through my library. There are sufficient words for three good-sized books. There are more words than make up Middlemarch, which I’m reading, and at that familiar stage when I don’t want a book to end. This is not to draw any comparisons between Middlemarch–or any other novel–than my unedited stream of consciousness. I write this blog in order to retain more of what I read, and to participate in a conversation about literature. It surprises me that so many of my blog’s readers live in the U.S., more than double the number from U.K. I read mostly European novels, few American ones. I never expected to write so much on my blog, to be writing here for over nine years. The novel I’d like to write is spread over seven notebooks and will probably never come together into a single form. I am firstly a reader, living my life through living so many lives in addition to my own. As Paul Valéry observed, “If each man were not able to live a number of lives beside his own, he would not be able to live his own.”

Middlemarch Thoughts

George Eliot, Middlemarch. Everyman’s Library, 1991 (1930); Pelikan M800 Blue-striped (Robert Oster Summer Storm ink); Darkstar Collection Notebook

“We learn to read Middlemarch in the probing light of James’ treatment; we then return to The Portrait of a Lady and come to recognise the transformative inflections of its source.”

It is an idea of Steiner’s that I like, his contention that we can think of a reversal in chronology, in that we understand Eliot’s earlier novel better through the reading of the latter. As Christopher J. Knight writes in Uncommon Readers, “James reads Middlemarch, and then writes The Portrait of a Lady. Is the James novel art or criticism? In Real Presences, Steiner contends that it is both.”

In an early review, Edith Simcox described Middlemarch as like ‘a Wilhelm Meister written by Balzac’; George Eliot’s first biographer, Mathilde Blind, compared her to George Sand, Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. So, it seems only natural to finish Balzac’s Père Goriot and then read Middlemarch, followed perhaps by The Portrait of a Lady.

Middlemarch is, of course, fascinating and steeped in Eliot’s profound knowledge of European literature and culture. Her passion of the mind is clear, and I like the book’s intensity and seriousness. You can find in Miriam Henderson, the central character in Richardson’s Pilgrimage much in common with Eliot’s Dorothea, that awareness of the impossibility of knowing what is ‘other’, nor even ourselves completely, subject as we are to the lure of imagined states and compelling metaphors.

Dorothea also suggests Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr Cogito and the Imagination (so beautifully translated by Alissa Valles). It is a favourite poem that is never far from my mind.

“he longed to understand fully

-Pascal’s night
-the nature of a diamond
-the prophets’ melancholy
-the wrath of Achilles
-the fury of mass murderers
-the dreams of Mary Stuart
-the fear of Neanderthals
-the last Aztecs’ despair
-Nietzsche’s long dying
-the Lascaux painter’s joy
-the rise and fall of an oak
-the rise and fall of Rome”

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Leonard Woolf’s first impression of his wife’s novel The Waves was, “It is a masterpiece,” “And the best of your books”. He also thought “the first 100 pages extremely difficult.” Virginia Woolf’s own note read “never have I screwed my brain so tight over a book.”

Each of those sentiments is immediately recognisable as I read this remarkable prose poem. As is my custom I read the introduction to my Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Waves after completing the novel. Had I read it before I may have felt less inadequate to the task:

Certainly, the reader of The Waves  needs to swim, to trust to the buoyancy of the eye and the suppleness of the understanding. It is no good panicking when sequence seems lost or persons are hard to pick out. The rhythms of the work will sustain us comfortably as long as we do not flounder about trying to catch hold of events. The events are there, sure enough, but they are not sundered from the flow. This is to say that the form of the waves is acted out in the actual reading experience, and the reader must trust the medium. The rhythmic patterns of the book, this ‘play-poem’, provide the clues for the performance.

The feelings of inadequacy that this novel inspired from time to time never subtracted from the thrill of reading something sublime. Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is comparable. The inadequacy comes from the knowledge that there are allusions and a depth that would need a lifetime of study to fully comprehend.

Bernard’s final soliloquy is the only part of the novel where I read more than fifty pages in a single sitting. Prior to the last chapter, twenty page bursts were sufficient at a time. I needed to recap, to drink in the words. The last chapter presented no alternative but to be consumed singly, breathlessly.

The book is brilliant and a logical development, the one I hoped for, from Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. As an exploration of self and perception, the book is profound. To be aware of Woolf’s psychologically precarious existence and her diary entries that these “characters” suggested different aspects of of self, perhaps of that enigmatic “lady writing” whilst the gardeners sweep, is to appreciate more profoundly how difficult this book must have been to write.

Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I write the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad) I was almost afraid remembering the voices that used to fly ahead.

Reading The Waves brings to a close Woolf in Winter, my first shared reading experience. My heartfelt thanks to Sarah, Emily, Clare and Frances for galvanising me finally to tackle Virginia Woolf. Reading Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse and The Waves, has been enriching.

Though Mrs. Woolf and I need a little time apart, I will surely read The Years and Between the Acts, Hermoine Lee’s biography and dip frequently into the essays and diaries, all of which now sit on my library shelves. The Waves and To the Lighthouse are also novels to be read again, several times.

In a twelve month period where I have finally read Austen and Woolf, this Harold Bloom excerpt seems apposite and appropriately controversial:

Will we ever again have novelists as original and superb as Austen, George Eliot, and Woolf, or a poet as extraordinary and intelligent as Dickinson? Half a century after Woolf’s death, she has no rivals among women novelists or critics, though they enjoy the liberation she prophesied.

Feel free to provide answers below.