Thursday, March 22, 2007

Middlemarch, and Being Pulled Along By the Plot

I've been sick this week, so I haven't been able to complete some longer items I've been working on. I have, however, been able to finish reading George Eliot's Middlemarch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wasn't expecting it to be as funny as it is. It is often called "the quintessential Victorian novel"--indeed, the back cover of our copy calls it just that. Anyway, here, I gather, is what the Modernists were reacting against, and what present-day writers are more likely to use as their forerunner than the Modernists' own novels. The attempt to present "real life" in all its totality being an effort taken in bad faith, per Gabriel Josipovici. It's a huge book, of course (nearly 800 pages), and it abounds in characters we grow to care about. It does suck you in. Almost against my will I found myself despising Mr. Casaubon, for example, and rooting for bad things not to happen to Fred Vincy.

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’.

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 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.)

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".)


Anonymous said...

I had a very similar experience with Middlemarch, although I liked it much better than you seemed to (I list it as my second favorite novel, after Ulysses; this allows me to straddle my love of the Victorian novel and the love of the Modernist novel).

I found that Middlemarch, even though the story had a very powerful current, did not pull me along in the way I expected. The "good, gripping read" is not an experience I particularly seek out, and I generally have to fight the eyes-racing tendency when reading in general. Middlemarch, even though the plot is carefully laid and perfectly engaging, was arresting: the story was magnificent, but the characters so life-like and human (unlike McEwan's "fictional containers") that I felt as if I were strolling through the book, just as I would do at the park.

I agree that the narrator's explorations and summaries are what keep the novel from racing forward. Eliot's writing in these passages is my favorite part of Middlemarch. The narrator will often interrupt at unexpected moments, which helps to put a halt on the plotting. For example, in Chapter XI, in the second paragraph, as the narrator is considering Lydgate's reaction to Rosamond, this line breaks through: "Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand."


Richard said...

Hi Ted. Thanks for the comment.

Don't misunderstand: I loved Middlemarch. I don't know where it ranks for me, because I don't generally rank my favorite novels. I just happened to notice that late stretch where I felt myself restlessly wanting to find out what happens, which I try to resist, and I thought to link it with books where that seems to happen almost as a matter of design.