Weekend Miscellany

At the Guardian, Jane Smiley writes about Trollope’s The Kellys and the O’Kelly’s:

The Kellys and the O’Kellys was not a commercial success. It was published – perhaps unluckily – in the same year as Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Dickens’s Dombey and Son and Gaskell’s Mary Barton, all addressing the issue of what was wrong with life. The Kellys and the O’Kellys evoked much that was right. It must have seemed bland. It failed, selling 140 copies and earning Trollope no money. Although it was written in a wholly different tone from his first novel, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, its author gained no points for exhibiting his versatility. Both novels, scholars now feel, suffered commercially from being about Ireland – the famine was raging, and the English reading public did not want to think about it. It was destined to be a sleeper – a thoughtful, subtle novel published in an anxious year.

But one of England’s greatest novelists had laid out his tools for all to see – the grace of his writing, the worldliness of his vision, the variety of his characters and scenes, the expansiveness of his geography. The story itself is the important thing, not the satiric tone, as in Thackeray, the social criticism, as in Gaskell, or the stylistic exuberance, as in Dickens. He delivered the whole package, but it was a modestly wrapped package and got lost. (read the rest here)

I have written before about how well I think Smiley talks about Trollope.

At the TLS, critic and novelist David Lodge writes with both pathos and humour about his hearing loss:

You might think that of all the professions a novelist is least affected by hearing loss and, up to a point, that is true. We compose books in silence, consumed in silence by solitary readers.

However, deafness restricts and thins out the supply of new ideas and experience on which the novelist depends to create his fictions. That former nun’s life story might have been priceless “material” and I regret its loss. I miss opportunities to eavesdrop on humanly revealing conversations on buses and in shops and to keep up with new idioms, coinages and catch-phrases that give flavour and authenticity to dialogue in a novel of contemporary life. (read the rest here)

Hmm: “it’s a cast-iron excuse for declining to serve on committees”? That might offset a lot of the disadvantages…

In the Globe and Mail‘s book section, Cynthia MacDonald reviews Emma Donoghue’s latest, a neo-Victorian novel focusing on the 1864 Codrington divorce case:

It’s amazing to think that 150 years ago, the British Empire was ruled by an actual married woman. As Emma Donoghue reminds us in her marvellous new novel, wives in the Victorian era were usually classed with “criminals, lunatics and children”: devoid of legal identity, stripped of property, limited in their opportunities for paid work.

By way of illustration, she has chosen a thoroughly riveting courtroom drama. The Sealed Letter is a fictionalized version of the Codrington divorce case, which had le tout London squirming in its pantaloons over several months in 1864. Juicy, vicious, elegant and thoughtful, the book is a valuable addition to Donoghue’s growing corpus of fine historical novels (including Life Mask and Slammerkin). (read the rest here)

I wasn’t that taken with Slammerkin when I read it about a year ago (as George Eliot remarked a long time ago, historical fiction is a particularly demanding genre, though the risks are often underestimated). But I’ll probably give this one a try, just to keep up-to-date on my neo-Victorian options.

Finally, the little comment-spat I’ve been involved in at The Reading Experience has led me back to this earlier post by Dan Green:

After eighty years of experimenting with the study of literature as an academic subject, those carrying it out (myself included) have made a complete hash of it. Literature itself is held in contempt not just by the majority of ordinary people but by those professing to teach it. “Literature Professor” has become a near-synonym of “lunatic.” That literary study would come to such an end was probably inevitable, since the primary imperative of academe–to create “new” knowledge–is finally inimical to something so difficult to dress up in fashionable critical clothes as serious works of fiction or poetry. Once it was perceived that “aesthetic complexity” was a spent force (at least as the means for producing new monographs and journal articles), approaches to literature that essentially abandoned its consideration as an art form were practically certain to follow.

Nearly three years later, a conversation touching on many similar points is unfolding in a comments thread at The Valve even as Ronan MacDonald is announcing the death of the critic. Well, give us credit, at least, for not going gentle into that good night! Indeed, critics appear to have co-opted the story of their impending demise as yet another subcategory of metacriticism.

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