Recent Reading (and a little Recent Watching, too)

Despite He Knew He Was Right (currently on the table in my Victorian ‘Woman Question’ seminar), graduate admissions, and the ordinary middle-of-term business (incoming assignments, class preparation, committee meetings, and so on), I have been able to do a little ‘pleasure’ reading lately. Here are some ‘thumbnail’ responses.

Reginald Hill, Death Comes for the Fat Man. I find this series reliable: literate, well plotted, with its main characters well enough developed that the prospect of Dalziel’s demise had some poignancy. This particular novel did not blow me away, though (for those who have read it, sorry for the pun). Although I appreciate Hill’s attempt to engage with big issues and international conflicts as they register on a local scale, his Knights Templar seemed like foolish medieval joust re-enactors rather than a genuine force of menace worthy of their intended opposition. On the other hand, I wondered as I was reading whether that was Hill’s point: that secret societies, blood vengeance, beheadings, and so forth are relics of medieval concepts of justice, religion, and warfare–that the Islamicist movements the Knights imitate represent anachronistic, regressive forces that are incongruous with contemporary mores.

Benjamin Black, Christine Falls. I expected more from this much-touted ‘crossover’ work by Booker-Prize winner John Banville. It is elegantly written, and some of the characters–especially his dour protagonist, the pathologist Quirke–are compellingly portrayed, but I didn’t find that was true of all of them (Rose and Josh Crawford, for instance, or even Phoebe, who seems to be supposed to carry a pretty heavy thematic burden). Quirke’s love for Sarah seemed based on nothing in particular (maybe I just miss fuller exposition?). The central ‘crime’ had few surprises for a novel set in 1950s Ireland (corruption in the Catholic church? unwanted babies? no kidding!). Atmospheric, I guess, but a thin atmosphere unless the people live in it intensely, and Banville’s spare style did not establish that kind of intensity for me. I suppose I would sum up the novel’s theme as ‘being orphaned’ (literally, but also emotionally and metaphysically). It did not bring home to me what the costs of such a condition are, maybe because on closer inspection pretty much all of the characters are in it together–which in itself is a potentially powerful (poignant, frightening) vision. I’ll probably re-read it, as I admit my immersion in baggy Victorian novels that tell me everything (sometimes over and over) does not always make me the best reader of novels that leave more out.

On Friday I rented The Jane Austen Book Club. I found the book OK, if a bit gimmicky, but I thought it would make a decent movie. It did, but also an odd one: I can’t imagine anyone getting much out of it, for instance, who doesn’t know all six of Austen’s novels pretty well–well enough to take an interest in watching other people debate, say, Fanny Price’s character, or Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightly. Superficial as the movie’s book club discussions are (in fact, maybe because they are so superficial and rapid), non-Janeites seem likely to tune out, and then the plot that surrounds these scenes is itself not particularly rich. It’s striking that only rarely did the book club scenes turn on issues of construction or literary technique: they were pretty much all about the characters all the time, generally in the spirit of “these people seem real to us, so let’s debate their motives and choices.” I have almost no personal experience of book clubs, but my sense is that this is indeed typical. Of course, this is also precisely the kind of conversation I think most English professors eventually shut down in class. And yet working my way through He Knew He Was Right with my students, I have been finding that it seems like the most natural and appropriate approach, because Trollope’s most notable literary technique is precisely characterization, and his primary concern is what his characters do, with what motives, to what ends, and with what consequences. Also, as my students have pointed out, in many crucial cases he does not take sides, or if so, only equivocally, so that we are poised ourselves on the cusp of decisions or moral judgements and prompted to keep weighing the pros and cons of actions, the honesty, self-knowledge, or self-deceptions of his people, and so on. Who is right, Emily or Louis? Is Priscilla right to want Emily and Nora to leave the Clock House? Should Dorothy accept Mr Gibson? We spend so much time thinking about these questions with the characters that backing off into other kinds of interpretive questions sometimes seems like missing the point. In Middlemarch we know Dorothea’s first marriage is an awful mistake. We are pressed to understand it, even to sympathize with it, nonetheless, and we may perhaps acknowledge the beauty of such an error: there’s plenty of room for nuance and ambivalence. But somehow in that case a spirited discussion on the relative merits of Sir James and Mr Casaubon seems out of place, because clearly there are larger philosophical and historical and moral issues being brought into focus by Dorothea’s choice. In Trollope, the choices seem more literal, more ordinary, and no less important–perhaps even more so in a way, because you have no confidence that the wise narrator will resolve or even analyze the full significance of the options for you. As many of the characters keep discovering, you may have to rely on your own judgment.

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