March 10th, 2014
George Eliot – Silas Marner
Despite its sentimental, Dickensian cover and premise – an outcast weaver is drawn back into society by the arrival of an orphaned child in his life – this short novel is yet more evidence of Eliot’s ability to create the impression of distance in her fictions. Eliot’s mastery of the bourgeois novel is of a similar kind and order to Milton’s mastery of the epic poem; the devil, as always, is in the details and how they’re relayed.
It’s worth comparing Marner’s transition over the first part of this novel with Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol in order to better understand Eliot’s method. Dickens is one of the all time great narrators, and he trusts that the effects he has conveyed so spectacularly throughout his ghost story will linger with both his notorious outcast and miser and the reader even after he’s allowed the illusion to collapse in on itself:
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Compare the drama of Dickens’s line to the ever-shifting emphasis of this paragraph from the final bloom of Silas Marner‘s first volume:
Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.
In Eliot’s hands a seemingly romantic conceit – a child’s improving effect on an alienated adult – is nevertheless established to be effective only inasmuch as Marner’s continued obligations to the child necessitate a continued interaction with society as a whole. This is typical of Eliot’s approach, which emphasises connection and consequence over the triumph of kind hearts and stirring rhetoric.
This comparison is, however, not offered in order to disparage Dickens, whose busy narration looks simultaneously backward to the jarring shifts of the best English poetry and forward to the juddering machinery of modern comedy. And if it’s true that those same novels are premised on a call to individual kindness that overlooks the necessity for any broader or more systematic change then that does not diminish their effectiveness in making vivid the muck and dirt of unreformed reality.
The simple truth is that Eliot’s talents are slightly different in nature, and their magnitude does not need to be exaggerated by the disparagement of other novelists even if they may be better understood in light of the comparison.
Staying mindful of the example of Dickens, it occurs that the subject of the novelist vs. the social order that produced them is a curious one when applied to Eliot’s work. The form of the bourgeois novel she so excels at may in itself may replicate bourgeois values by way of its sheer confidence, but Eliot interrogates these conventions through the startling depth and clarity of her narrative judgements, which contrast with the narrative itself in a way that can’t help but provoke quiet inquiry.
The introduction to the edition I read makes up for any awkwardness its cover may engender by virtue of an astute introduction by R.T. Jones (an Honorary Fellow of the University of York, apparently), in which Jones tracks some of the juxtapositions that exist in Silas Marner‘s framing story, arguing that for all Eliot’s narration chides Godfrey for foolishly hoping that all would work out well when he didn’t claim his secret child, the story bears out his actions more than it does her words:
…the novel leads us to conclude that if Godfrey had done the right thing, acknowledged his first wife and her baby as his, Nancy would not have married him; Eppie (under a different name, of course) would have grown up in the Red House with no mother and a resentful father; so Godfrey, Nancy and Eppie would have had very little oppotunity for happiness, and of course Silas Marner would have remained an exile from human society.
Silas Marner ends on a statement of total happiness that somehow fails to ring false, but the novel never once lets you forget that fairy-tale conclusion has been built on a series of disappointments, lies, and betrayals, and it is Eliot’s ability to keep both of these seemingly contradictory positions in perspective that gives the truest account of her peculiar genius in this short novel.
Albert Camus – The Outsider
I somehow managed to miss reading this during both my teenage “neurotic boy outsider” phase and my University-era “reads a lot of French things” phase. I don’t know if I maybe dodged Camus because reading him seemed a bit too obvious somehow, but then again it’s not like I was slow to indulge in Kerouac and Kafka so maybe that doesn’t make much sense.
Regardless, I’m actually glad I read this one when I did: its cold precision would have impressed me too much as a teenager and not enough as an undergraduate.
Good little ex-student and neurotic boy insider that I am, I came to this with a head full of ideas acquired while reading Roland Barthes and Alain Robbe-Grillet, notions of “neutral” writing combined with an old conception of what “the new novel” might look like. To my eyes, however, Camus’ novel seems more profitably read in the context of those other great stories of guilt, Crime and Punishment and The Trial.
(If you’ve not read John Pistelli on The Trial, you should. John makes a persuasive case that the books reputation as a pre-emptive echo of fascist bureaucracy is in fact premised on a misreading of the text, and his description of it as a “psychological allegory about the necessity and inevitability of conscience” is a haunting one.)
Dostoevsky’s novel is strongest when describing the cold build up to and feverish aftermath of the crime itself, while Kafka’s was at its best when dealing with the inescapable and inexplicable mechanics of internal justice (Pistelli again: “Kafka’s hallcinatory bureucrats, like their successors in Saramango’s registry, imperfectly fill a needed office in a modern world otherwise too occupied to take account of itself.”). The Outsider, meanwhile, is at its most convincing while providing a response to the sentence itself. Camus’ flat, knowingly unaffected style leaves us to make what we will of the novel’s opening section, in which the protagonist embroils himself in a sordid, sun struck crime (*SPOILERS* it’s pretty #problematic), and allows us to sardonically enjoy the perversity of the trial that follows, with its emphasis on how much the accused cared for his recently deceased mother. It is only in the novel’s final flourish that this style makes its own intentions clear: after railing against the pretensions of a visiting Chaplin and admitting his own mortal terror, our protagonist finds himself realising that he is a creature at piece with the indifferent novel he finds himself in. For all his bewilderment, he always has been – otherwise, he might have acted in a way that was less conducive to its plot.
Like its literary precursors, then, The Outsider is not so much an admirable novel (unless you’re a truth warrior, in which boy do I ever have some Rorschach fan fic for you!) as it is a useful and troubling one. To state it too plainly to do justice to the facts, just as Dostoevsky shrill hysterics scrape away at our passions and hubris, and Kafka’s free-wheeling confusion outlines our difficulty in coming to terms with our own judgement, so Camus’ flat narration prompt us to question our complicity in the fictions we find ourselves living in.
A.S. Byatt – Possession and Ragnarok
There’s a great passage early on in A.S. Byatt’s Possession that comes when two English scholars are discussing their distinct but surprisingly interconnected lifelong obsessions, a pair of poets whose lives were intertwined in ways that academia had previously failed to detect let alone untangle.
In a moment of mutual exhaustion, they agree on the formulation for why they’ve followed their respective favourites all the way down this rabbit hole. Describing his hero, the author of wandering monologues Randolph Henry Ash, Roland claims that Ash’s work is ”what stayed alive, when I’d been taught and examined everything else.” His counterpart Maud, a passionate advocate of the jagged fairytale stylings of Christabel LaMotte, provides a typically terse and charismatic paraphrase when she describes the sources of their obsessions as being the only authors whose writing “could survive [their] educations”.
I mentioned this passage while discussing the Eng Lit experience with two younger friends recently, one of whom has recently graduated, the other of whom is considering enrolment. This conversation was blissfully free of the crass, Wilde-baiting materialism that you normally have to deal with before getting to the question of what an Eng Lit degree is worth because the recent graduate is already in teacher training, and is thus a confirmed alchemist of shit into gold; the potential under-graduate is in possession of a remarkably outdated set of values that precludes such questions entirely. Being an early enthusiast for the Curriculum for Excellence, our young teacher-in-waiting was keen to expound on the skills the degree would provide and enhance; desperate as I am to justify my own existence, I made some bold claims for the historical overview afforded by Glasgow University’s honours course, and for the bracing effect of an immersion in theory.
In short, I highly recommend it!
Despite all our big talk, both myself and my young teacher-to-be offered warnings along the lines of those found in Possession. A few weeks separate for the fact I find myself agreeing with my young, academically untested friend, who said that she didn’t mind having more than one track to her engagement/enjoyment with the world already and couldn’t see the harm in adding more.
Reading over what I’ve written above it seems obvious to me that the only thing that has failed to survive my education intact is my ability to speak to people about the things I’m most passionate about. I try to speak plainly but lose sight of this goal within a few muddy sentences; I try to write a short post to capture a simple though, and am lost in a tangle of context and qualification.
A.S. Byatt appears to experience no such difficulties, and thus offers the illusion of salvation to people with this sort of literary damage. Despite being a defiantly academic work, and one that has clear been written after a prolonged exposure to theory, Possession read as though it was written from a position of old fashioned authority. Byatt’s pastiches of old poems and academic journals and secret letters rise together with her third person narration to suggest a polyphony of “real” voices instead of a collage of different styles. This is simply a higher form of trickery of course, but it’s an impressive display of prowess, and one that tricks the reader into confronting the truth at the heart of this unspeakably convincing illusion: that none of this elaborate exploration brings us any closer to reality, but that without any of this half-blind collaborative effort none of us would lead a worthwhile existence anyway.
These skills don’t always serve Byatt quite so well though – her recreation of the Ragnarok myth maintains and rhapsodises the unfathomable wilds of the originals while positioning them with a view to the end of our times, but the articulation of these methods provided in the postscript is frankly unnecessary, and has the effect of lessening what came before.
To borrow a few words from M. John Harrison’s review:
Ragnarok is a clever, lucid, lovely book. But it isn’t a novel, or even a story in the usual sense. It’s a discourse on myth, woven in and around a polemic about pollution and loss of species diversity: Yggdrasil the World Tree reinscribed as a doomed ecosystem. Byatt’s ideas lie close to the surface; moreover, the author herself is waiting patiently at the end of everything, to make sure we take her point.
In a mediated age, this effect extends beyond the book. I know, for instance, that the “thin child” is probably AS Byatt herself, because before I opened Ragnarok I read her recent piece in this newspaper. Between that and a precision-crafted afterword, she is able to control, to a much greater degree than was possible in the early 1940s, the way the reader receives and interprets the text. I’m in a sense grateful for that, I feel in safe hands; after all, Byatt knows a great deal more about these myths – and myth in general – than I ever will. In another sense I’m disappointed that she doesn’t leave me alone to discover what she’s made.
Still, if I may take some comfort in my comparative lack of clarity, it won’t last for long – whatever the faults of Byatt’s Ragnarok may be, there are still passages of great, cryptic beauty in there, whole chapters strong enough to inspire sickly children the world over to dig deeper into this tangled mess of nothing.