A seeming digression. Sometime before we were married, a high school friend of Aimée's and her husband visited us. The conversation turned towards literature. Happily, they are both literary-minded readers. She'd read Proust in the previous year, so we talked a little about her experience. Later on we mentioned that we'd both been interested in reading Beckett. He recommended Watt as a good place to start (naturally, I instead started with Murphy, since it was at the beginning). At one point, he said something that I liked, that has stuck with me. He said: "I resent it when I'm reading a novel and I feel pulled along by the plot." I recognized the idea. I think I'd had it myself, without quite realizing it. I know that when I read, say, Ian McEwan, someone who I once thought of as quite literary, I've had difficulty focusing on the words on the page. McEwan can write well, and he crafts very pleasant sentences--often beautiful ones--but. . . well, his novels are "good, gripping read[s]". That link goes to another Ellis Sharp post in which he expands on the idea presented in the recent Josipovici talk by quoting from James Wood's review of McEwan's Enduring Love. Says Ellis:
Wood complained that McEwan had become increasingly a novelist ‘who trades in narrative surprises…his novels suffocate with design. They trap their subjects in prim webs of information and argumentation.’ For Wood there is something deeply unrealistic about McEwan’s brand of realism: ‘his people are efficient fictional containers, but not people’.I don't always (or often) agree with Wood, but these comments about McEwan make sense to me. When I read McEwan a lot of the time my eyes tend to want to race down the page. I get impatient; I have been conditioned by the prose, and the fine-tuned plot, to eagerly anticipate what happens next. And I don't like that. I don't really care what happens next. (Incidentally, looking back, I think this is why I liked Atonement the best of McEwan's novels. In it, I think he is much better at "strand[ing] the reader in not-knowing". In that novel, he subverted the tendency to want to know what "really" happened--and naturally got criticized for "ruining" what could have been a "perfectly good story". I'd need to read it again to see if I'd still rate it as highly as I did.)
Wood also puts forward a view of great writing (or at any rate, true novels as opposed to inauthentic ones) as involving writing that strands the reader in not-knowing, in contrast to McEwan, who supplies the consolations and pleasures of explanation, meaning and resolution, which emerge through the medium of a gleaming, processed, entirely accessible prose.
I bring this up because toward the end of Middlemarch, over the last 150 pages or so, I noticed much the same thing. We have learned so much about the lives of these characters, and much has happened to them; by the end I had to restrain myself from the temptation to rush ahead. And I wanted to restrain myself, because the thing I liked most about the novel was what was slowest about it: the (omniscient) narrator's patient exploration of the characters' feelings and thought processes, interspersed with amusing asides. (The dialogue was generally more or less forgettable, but I really hate the attempts to "capture" the speech of the "lower" classes, the "ill-born".)