Thursday, December 08, 2005

50. Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot pictureWho

Yeah boyee. Where there is a will there's a way. I was really in the pit of despair back there in September. I don't know what got me going, but I got it done and am a much better person for it. I have completed the 50 book meme. And I intend to do it again next year. At the end of the year, I'll write an overview about the whole thing and how it affected me. Now, let us return to the text at hand.

Middlemarch is a classic of english literature and a bit of a symbol of something virtuous around my house as I was growing up. My sister read it when she was in her early teens, demonstrating her subtler and more persevering mind. My mother brought it up on the phone again a couple weeks ago, thinking that I had read it. I felt I needed to make my 50th book a big one. War and Peace would have been pretty impressive, but I was a little tired of the Russian thing and it was checked out.

First of all, this is a ripping good yarn. George Eliot can tell a story. Both the complexity of the narrative and it's unravelling are masterful. Her command of the english language is on a level that just doesn't exist today. She was obviously talented but also the result of a much more rigorous (though far from perfect and exclusive) educational system that makes me cringe to think of the watered down and mediocre methods with which we train our children today. Think of an inverse-time basketball metaphor. The best writer of our time is to Jane Austen as the best basketball player of her time would be to Michael Jordan. She would bitch-slap any contemporary opponent off the page. Check this shit out:

Caleb was a powerful man and knew little of any fear except the fear of hurting others and the fear of having to speechify.

Ka-jang! One sentence, one rich character.

Or how about:

The fact is unalterable, that a fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship be disclosed of something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.

In your face! Try to put that sentence together on your own, 21st century "writer". [I can think of several males of my own acquaintance who would do well to have those words tattooed on the inside of their upper forearm, in order that they may be constantly referenced and kept foremost in their minds and hearts.]

It took my soft brain a while to acclimatize to the more complex turns of phrase and I must confess that I read a lot of the first half in a semi-distracted state. However, as I got caught up in the narrative, I found the reading flowed more easily and the writing became a real joy.

Now on to the substance. I can not fault the contents of this book except from my own limited, masculine perspective. From that perspective, though, I might suggest that Middlemarch be subtitled "Silly Rich Women and the Men Who Are Compelled To Marry Them." The characters are richly drawn and the revelations of the depths of their characters and the changes to those characters are a joy to read. But the characters themselves can be pretty annoying. I'm sure there are arguments to the historical context and the role of women in upper class, rural england that justify and explain their behaviours, but that doesn't satisfy this readers desire to step in to Middlemarch and slap Dorothea in the back of the head, saying "He's a bitter old man and will never satisfy you, so take off the hair shirt and go make some friends."

To be fair, Eliot paints their character flaws so well and so deftly in relation to their circumstances, that you have to believe these people would have acted the way they did. But I'm just not all that interested in people struggling to find love amidst a rigid social structure. Especially when they are surrounded by that awesome British countryside right at the dawn of the railroad.

Most of the novel concerns Dorothea and her quest for love, but also follows closely the spoiled Rosamund and her hard-working, idealistic but also spoiled (by class) husband. These stories were interesting, but I think I would have rather spent over half of the 900 pages following Mr. Caleb Garth around as he made innovative improvements to the farmers' cottages and their agricultural techniques. Now that was a cool character. Perhaps with another 200 pages devoted to following Monk the St. Bernard on his travels on the Brooke family estate. He only gets two measly mentions in the whole book!

Reading Middlemarch was a revelation though. I can see the pernicious influence it had on my sister at a very young age. While I was reading Sgt. Rock and Conan Doyle and recognizing the value of being able to outflank a german machine-gun nest and making my way in disguise around the waterfront, she was reading obsessive details about the color and fabric of women's clothes, the importance of having the right kind of dinnerware and the power of women talking together in drawing rooms. I was worried about the influence of those women's fashion magazines, but I can see now these British classics of romantic literature were far more subtle and insidious.


WeSailFurther said...

Alllow me to be the first to congratulate you on making it to 50! Nice, man. It looks like I will have to burn it up just to make 25.

Believe it or not I have carried this book around with me, on every move from coast-to-coast since I was in the Navy. And I've been out for ten years, nearly 11! If Caleb is so cool I want to read it for sure. I'm an Austen fan, and if Eliot is her better, let me in.

Currently the boook sits on a shelf in my classroom, neglected. I'm going to take it down and carry it with me some more. Perhaps after I read the newest Purves thriller Incorporation I'll get to Middlemarch.

Jason L said...

Nice work!! I, too, have had my doubts about whether I would make it to the end of this journey but its going to happen.

Well done finishing strong with a classic. I've started on my last book and it is also from the "I should read but never have" canon. I think I'll need the next 3 weeks to get it out of the way.

Here's to 2006!

Buzby said...

Nicely done...almost 1 book per week...and a worthy text to end things with.