classic literature

55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

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Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

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Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

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55 Classics Review #9 – Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse


It took me a long time to finish this relatively short book, but don’t let that soil your impression of its merit. The past 6 weeks have included, among other things, the much-anticipated and long-belated birth of my son. I haven’t felt entirely comfortable going off to read while my wife attempts to fend off the violent affections of two young ladies set on wrestling out their love for mother and new baby brother. I also blame Middlemarch; reading any book in tandem with Middlemarch makes for demotivation by osmosis.

I have been excited to dig into Wodehouse for some time. Having heard many mirthful mentionings of his work, I watched some of the BBC adaptation Jeeves & Wooster, starring the wonderful duo of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. While Heavy Weather follows an entirely different cast of characters, the eases and difficulties of adapting his work for the screen are evident. Both pros and cons draw from his ability to approach all content with such an even and natural comic sensibility.

Heavy Weather follows a large cast of characters as they attempt to gain control of a manuscript of reminiscences which would prove to be very lucrative and excessively embarrassing to almost all existing British nobility if published. Miscommunication and dumb-luck continue to keep everyone fumbling for control of said manuscript throughout most of the book, with many awkward interactions and side stories. Move by move, each pawn finds something at stake on one side or the other and occasionally on both. It is like reading a season of Downton Abbey written like Arsenic And Old Lace or Harvey. This type of story does not urge one to find out what happens next. It reads like a walk in the country, taken in for the paced experience rather than the end result. There are plenty of unexpected moments, but the plot is convoluted rather than climactic.

As a writer of many plays and comic musicals, Wodehouse makes the actions and reactions at hand in this novel flow as if written for players on a stage. The book is full of fast-paced comic miscommunication, failing strategizing, and diplomatic family blundering. He writes visually and his evocative scenes, comic dialogue, and eccentric characters make ideal performance material.

It is this singular whimsical writing style which is so central to his work that also remains in many ways untranslatable. He describes thoughts, appearances, and concepts as well as he does visual experiences and often time these are the best bits. This means that at least half of what makes this work so remarkably enjoyable remains staunchly text-based. He also uses huge amounts of period-specific British slang, which may make trouble or hinder enjoyment for some readers.

Wodehouse was a consumate writer. He wrote almost as compulsion, continuing his career into his 90’s. He has a remarkable unique voice as a humorist that does not seem contrived or even niche. Reading his work quickly feels like listening to a hilarious old pal recount familiar stories. This is, in fact, a characteristic tendency for some member’s of his cast. These mannerisms, in the author and in his characters, helps make his writing universal yet unique.

Overall, I would suspect that most who enjoy period fiction and indulgent language-building will be able to appreciate this book. It may leave those hungry for significant plot a little empty-stomached, but one cannot help loving and loathing the characters and their antics, even if the last page makes you feel like you’ve been chasing your tail all this time.

Wodehouse is a light read for those who occasionally prefer to take reading lightly.

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Further Reading

“The Railway Children” by E. Nesbit

“On Stories” by C.S. Lewis

“Frankenstien” by Mary Shelley

55 Classics Review #6 – On Stories And Other Essays On Literature by C.S. Lewis


When it comes to popular spiritual epigrams, C. S. Lewis has G.K. Chesterton, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and maybe Jesus himself beat in terms of popular quotability. It seems impossible to browse any social media outlet without coming across a line from Narnia or The Screwtape Letters. That is what intrigues me the most about Lewis. A huge quanitity of the most enlightening statements he ever made came from the mouths of characters in fiction, rather than from any articles of non-fiction.

On Stories is therefore one of the greatest resources for getting behind this veil. In it we discover bits of the frame of mind capable of creating such original and timeless stories that seamlessly imply his deepest ideas about being human.

The book is a simple collection of essays, author dedications, op-ed pieces, and even a transcript of a conversation between Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss about the nature and value of science fiction as a genre. Many of the articles were never published, some merely scraps, unedited and unfinished.

On Stories cover a lot of ground, seeing Lewis address concepts and wrestle with idea which many of his popular quoters might find questionable or reproachable. He expresses interest in seeing good science fiction proposing a third gender, proposed that children’s literature shouldn’t shy away from being frightening, and emphatically endorses a lot of literature which some people might prefer to be banned. Overall, you are getting a much more rounded picture of the author’s ideas than you ever can from any piece or body of fiction.

The themes that come through most clearly are his strong opinions about fantasy and science fiction being absolutely valuable endeavors for both children and adults and his general rebuttals against the overwhelming academic ideas on literature from his day. He proves himself extremely well-read in everything from the classics (no surprise here as he was a world-class medievalist) to the science fiction paperbacks which were just gaining a huge foothold. He holds firmly that each has its own place of legitimate value to the reader.

One of my personal favorites was A Reply To Professor Haldane. A posthumously discovered response to the multiple, brutal assaults on his intellect by a professor of theoretical biology, this essay is at once precisely factual and sterile of any character assassinations. A discovered rough draft like this only highlights the immensity of logical preparation he puts into his ideas. He explains himself theoretically and through example while completely tearing down his opponent’s ideas without ridiculing the man. Indeed, it is easy to feel that Lewis has no emotional response to those who continually abused his character. Like Chesterton, one cannot help but admire his ability to let accusations roll off his back while taking the ideas involved quite seriously.

Overall, I highly suggest this title to any Lewis fan or general fan of science fiction and fantasy. If you’ve ever felt frustrated at those who don’t get why fairy tales or space travel stories are legitimate, you will find a friend in Lewis. I would also highly recommend this book if you’re interested in reading the more obscure works that have influenced modern fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi writing. Lewis is constantly referring to what he considered the classics of these genres.

Though you may not always agree with his conclusions on the issues he tackles, it is hard to fault the man for lack of thorough contemplation or sincerity in wrestling with all forms of literature.

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I’ll leave you with this delightful transcribed dialogue between Lewis and Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss.

 

“Lewis: Would you describe Abbott’s Flatland as science-fiction? There’s so little effort to bring it into any sensuous–well, you couldn’t do it, and it remains an intellectual theorem. Are you looking for an ashtray? Use the carpet.

Amis: I was looking for the Scotch, actually.

Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

 

Related Reading

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C.S. Lewis and Common Core Logic

C.S. Lewis On How Words Die

C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien On Our Connection To The Land