Review: Middlemarch

Review: Middlemarch

MiddlemarchMiddlemarch by George Eliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dullness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have its consolations.

I did not think a book like this was possible. A work of fiction with a thesis statement, a narrator who analyzes more often than describes, a morality play and an existential drama, and all this in the context of a realistic, historical novel—such a combination seems unwieldy and pretentious, to say the least. Yet Middlemarch never struck me as over-reaching or overly ambitious. Eliot not only manages to make this piece of universal art seem plausible, but her mastery is so perfect that the result is as natural and inevitable as a lullaby.

Eliot begins her story with a question: What would happen if a woman with the spiritual ardor of St. Theresa were born in 19th century rural England? This woman is Dorothea; and this book, although it includes dozens of characters, is her story. But Dorothea, and the rest of the people who populate her Middlemarch, is not only a character; she is a test-subject in a massive thought experiment, an examination intended to answer several questions:

To what extent is an individual responsible for her success or failure? How exactly does the social environment act upon the individual—in daily words and deeds—to aid or impede her potential? And how, in turn, does the potent individual act to alter her environment? What does it mean to be a failure, and what does it mean to be successful? And in the absence of a coherent social faith, as Christianity receded, what does it mean to be good?

As in any social experiment, we must have an experimental group, in the form of Dorothea, as well as a control group, in the form of Lydgate. The two are alike in their ambition. Lydgate’s ambition is for knowledge. He is a country doctor, but he longs to do important medical research, to pioneer new methods of treatment, and to solve the mysteries of sickness, death, and the human frame. Dorothea’s ambitions are more vague and spiritual. She is full of passionate longing, a hunger for something which would give coherence and meaning to her life, an object to which she could dedicate herself body and soul.

Lydgate begins with many advantages. For one, his mission is not a vague hope, but a concrete goal, the path to which he can chart and see clearly. Even more important, he is a man from a respectable family. Yes, there is some prejudice against him in Middlemarch, for being an outsider, educated abroad and with strange notions; but this barrier can hardly be compared with the those which faced even the most privileged woman in Middlemarch. For her part, Dorothea is born into a respectable family with adequate means. But her sex closes so many paths to action that the only important decision she can make is whom she will marry.

Dorothea’s choice of a husband sets the tone for the rest of her story. Faced with two options—the young, handsome, and rich Sir James Chettam, and the dry, old scholar, Mr. Casaubon—she surprises and disappoints nearly everyone by choosing the latter. Dorothea does this because she knows herself and she trusts herself; she is not afraid of being judged, and she does not care about status or wealth.

The first important decision Lydgate makes is who to recommend as chaplain for the new hospital, and this, too, sets the tone for the rest of his story. His choice is between Mr. Tyke, a disagreeable, doctrinaire puritan, and Mr. Farebrother, his friend and an honest, humane, and intelligent man. Lydgate’s inclination is towards the latter, but under pressure from Bulstrode, the rich financier of the new hospital, Lydgate chooses Mr. Tyke. In other words, he distinctly does not trust himself, and he allows his intuition of right and wrong to be swayed by public opinion and self-interest.

Dorothea’s choice soon turns out to be disastrous, while Lydgate’s works in his favor, as Bulstrode puts him in charge of the new hospital. Yet Eliot shows us that Dorothea’s choice was ultimately right and Lydgate’s ultimately wrong. For we cannot know beforehand how our choices will turn out; the future is hidden, and we must dedicate ourselves to both people and projects in ignorance. The determining factor is not whether it turned out well for you, but whether the choices was motivated by brave resolve or cowardly capitulation. You might say that this is the existentialist theme of Eliot’s novel: the necessity to act boldly in the absence of knowledge.

Dorothea’s act was bold and courageous; and even though Mr. Casaubon is soon revealed to be a wearisome, passionless, and selfish academic, her choice was nonetheless right, because she did her best to act authentically, fully in accordance with her moral intuition. Lydgate’s choice, even though it benefited him, established a pattern that ends in his bitter disappointment. He allowed himself to yield to circumstances; he allowed his self-interest to overrule his moral intuition: and this dooms him.

(Eliot, I should mention, seems to prefer what philosophers call an intuitionist view of moral action: that is, we must obey our conscience. Time and again Eliot shows how immoral acts are made to appear justified through conscious reasoning, and how hypocrites use religious or social ideologies to quiet their uneasy inner voice: “when gratitude becomes a matter of reasoning there are many ways of escaping from its bonds.”)

Eliot’s view of success or failure stems from this exploration of choice: success means being true to one’s moral intuition, and failure means betraying it. Dorothea continues to trust herself and to choose boldly, without regard for her worldly well-being or for conventional opinion. Lydgate, meanwhile, keeps buckling under pressure. He marries almost by accident, breaking a strong resolution he made beforehand, and then goes on to betray, one after the other, every other strong resolution of his, until his life’s plan has been lost entirely, chipped away by a thousand small circumstances.

Dorothea ends up on a lower social level than she started, married to an eccentric man of questionable blood, gossiped about in town and widely seen as a social failure. Lydgate, meanwhile, becomes “successful”; his beautiful wife is universally admired, and his practice is profitable and popular. But this conventional judgment means nothing; for Dorothea can live in good conscience, while Lydgate cannot.

But is success, for Eliot, so entirely dependent on intention, and so entirely divorced from results? Not exactly. For the person who is true to her moral intuition—even if she fails in her plans, even if she falls far short of her potential, and even if she is disgraced in the eyes of society—still exerts a beneficent effect on her surroundings.

Anyone who selflessly and boldly follows her moral intuition encourages everyone she meets, however subtly, to follow this example: as Eliot says of Dorothea, “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.” Eliot shows this most touchingly in the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Although Rosamond is vain, selfish, and superficial, the presence of Dorothea prompts her to one of the only unselfish acts of her life.

From reading this review, you might get the idea that this book is merely a philosophical exercise. But Eliot’s most miraculous accomplishment is to combine this analysis with an immaculate novel. The portrait she gives of Middlemarch is so fully realized, without any hint of strain or artifice, that the reader feels that he has bought a cottage there himself.

Normally at this point in a review, I add some criticisms; but I cannot think of a single bad thing to say about this book. Eliot’s command of dialogue and characterization, of pacing and plot-development, cannot be faulted. She moves effortlessly from scene to scene, from storyline to storyline, showing how the private is interwoven with the public, the social with the psychological, the economical with the amorous—how our vices are implicated in our virtues, how our good intentions shot through with ulterior motives, how our hopes and fears are mixed up with our routine reality—never simplifying the ambiguities of perspective or collapsing the many layers of meaning—and yet she is always in perfect command of her mountains of material.

A host of minor characters marches through these pages, each one individualized, many of them charming, some hilarious, a few irritating, and all of them vividly real. I could see parts of myself in every one of them, from the petulant Fred Vincey, to the blunt Mary Garth, to the frigid Mr. Casaubon, to the muddle-headed Mr. Brooke—almost Dickensian in his comic exaggeration—to every gossip, loony, miser, dissolute, profilage, and tender heart—the list cannot be finished.

Perhaps Eliot’s most astounding feat is to combine the aesthetic, with the ethical, with the analytic, in such a way that you can no longer view them separately. Eliot’s masterpiece charms as it preaches; it is both beautiful and wise; it pulls on the heart while engaging the head; and it is, in the words of Virgina Woolf, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

View all my reviews

Review: The Renaissance, by Walter Pater

Review: The Renaissance, by Walter Pater

The Renaissance: Studies in Art and PoetryThe Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry by Walter Pater
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

That it has given a new sense, that it has laid open a new organ, is the highest that can be said of any critical effort.

I had no idea what to expect from these essays. The only reason I became aware of Pater was because a copy of this book was sitting on the bathroom floor in my friend’s father’s house. Since my friend’s father is a successful painter, I naturally took note of a book about art so intimately placed. Much later, after finishing Burckhardt’s famous analysis of the Renaissance, and with my trip to Rome looming, I decided that I would finally see why a painter sought out this book for his bathroom inspiration.

Pater was an idiosyncratic fellow, and these essays certainly reflect that. Some of the topics he covers are expected: Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci. Others are more surprising: Joachim du Bellay, a Frenchman who wrote a defense of the French language; two medieval French stories about love and adventure; and Johann Winckelmann, the 18th century German classicist. Clearly, Pater’s conception of the Renaissance was far broader than Burckhardt’s, who considered the Renaissance a strictly Italian affair. Also broad is Pater’s conception of criticism: for him, it is not merely a vocation, but an entire philosophy of life.

I am referring specifically to the famous “Conclusion” that is tacked on to the end of these essays. In it, Pater puts forward a whole aesthetic philosophy of life: Everything is in flux; both matter and mind are temporary; the only thing we have is the moment; and since death may come at any time, and will come inevitably, the only rational response is to enjoy this moment as best you can. Now, some thought that Pater was advocating hedonism, but that is far from the case. He was, rather, an aesthete; and for him, “enjoying the moment” meant finding the most beautiful shade of green in a field of grass, or observing the play of light on a windowpane—that sort of thing. The ability to be constantly, delicately, indefatigably absorbed in one’s senses, and yet have the focus and taste necessary to select from these perceptions the most lovely, is what Pater meant with his famous suggestion to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame,” which for him is “success in life.”

At times, the age of these essays showed. This was most conspicuous in Pater’s essay on Giorgione, in which he bases his whole appreciation on one painting, elevating it to the height and epitome of Giorgione’s aesthetic—a painting which is now believed to be by Titian. But for the most part, the essays have retained their force and interest. Indeed, you may not realize how original this book was, since it anticipated and shaped so many of our attitudes about art and the Renaissance. To pick just one example, Pater’s discussion of the Mona Lisa, dwelling on her mysterious smile, certainly helped spur on our fascination for that work.

Nevertheless, I am unsure whether Pater actually deepened my appreciation for the Renaissance works he discussed. This is due, I think, to his ideal of the critic: to be acutely sensitive to the power of art, and to be finely discriminating of what is more or less beautiful. Sensitive and discriminating Pater certainly is. (Several times I wondered if he passed out while writing his essays, since, judging by his breathless and insistent tone, he was always to be right on the cusp of a brilliant epiphany or a transcendent experience. It must have been exhausting.)

But notice was is lacking from his ideal of the critic: to analyze, to discuss, to inform. The critics who have most helped me appreciate art are those who taught me about the painting the artist; who showed me what to look for, how best to situated the painting within a certain context; in short, who pulled me into the world of the painting. But since Pater holds up sensitivty and discrimination as ideals, he is faced with the problem: how does one communicate those qualities, which are personal, to somebody else? To do this, he resorts to writing long rhapsodies, reveries, aesthetic ecstasies about the works under consideration. These passages are almost uniformly brilliant, often breathtaking. Nevertheless, it felt more like watching Pater look at a painting, overhearing the thoughts and associations the painting inspires in his brain, rather than learning how to appreciate the painting myself.

I cannot finish this review without discussing Pater’s prose. He is considered to be one of the great stylists, and this reputation is well deserved. The man was such a brilliant writer that it often seemed irrelevant what he was writing about; he could write an essay on the underside of a mosquito and it would be good literature.

This is not to say that he has no limitations. Most conspicuously, he has not even a trace of the epigrammatic. If a point can be made in ten words, Pater will give you fifty, though those fifty will be as finely crafted as a Baroque statue. His sentences never arrest you or stop you short, but rather overwhelm you, burying you under a pile of clauses, metaphors, images, until you’re short of breath and so dazzled that it seems someone has shone a flashlight in your eyes. Comparisons with Proust and Woolf, especially the latter, come readily to mind; but Pater has a manic insistence that makes his writing uniquely urgent.

Another limitation is that Pater seems incapable of that kind of easy grace, that effortless virtuosity, which many of the greatest writers display. Rather, his prose strains every nerve, exerts every muscle, panting and sweating as it pushes itself onward. This impression is, apparently, an accurate one: According to Wiki, he obsessively polished, tweaked, and rewrote his works, until every word, every sentence, every paragraph was just to his taste. This makes his prose like a super-ornate jewel, breathtaking in its designs, its symmetries, and its technical daring; yet for all that rather delicate and precious, and inevitably a bit ostentatious.

I will leave you with a passage from his essay on Michelangelo:

And of all that range of sentiment he is the poet, a poet still alive, and in possession of our inmost thoughts—dumb inquiry over the relapse after death into the formlessness which preceded life, the change, the revolt from that change, then the correcting, hallowing, consoling rush of pity; at last, far off, thin and vague, yet not more vague than the most definite thoughts men have had through three centuries on a matter that has been so near their hearts, the new body—a passing light, a mere intangible, external effect, over those too rigid, or too formless faces; a dream that lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless, helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.

View all my reviews

Review: South from Granada

South From GranadaSouth From Granada by Gerald Brenan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All I have aimed at is to entertain a few armchair travellers, who may enjoy whiling away a rainy night in reading of how people live in remote mountain villages in the serene climate of the South Mediterranean.

This book left me cold. I didn’t expect this. Early on in the book, Brenan tells us how he used to sit under an orange tree in Andalusia, reading Spinoza’s Ethics. Shortly thereafter, he moves into a little town in the Alpujarras and brings along with him hundreds of books, with the intention of educating himself. It is hard for me to think of a more promising start to a memoir. But as I turned the last page, I felt only relief that the book was over and I could move on.

Perhaps this coldness is due to the long gap between Brenan’s stay there and his writing of this book. South From Granada is an account of Brenan’s time living in Yegen, a small town in Andalusia, in the years between 1920 and 1934. The book was written about twenty years later, and published 1957. The intervening time seems to have dulled Brenan’s memories or taken some of the tang out of his experience, for I found many of the descriptions of Yegen in this book underwhelming bordering on soporific. And this, despite all of the things this book has going for it: skillful prose, an interesting story, as well as cameos from Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. What went wrong?

Even though Brenan spent an awful lot of time in this village, I got the impression that he didn’t get to know most of the people all that well. His fullest portraits in this book are of his landlord, his servant, a drunken Scottish person who lived a few miles away, and his friends who came to visit him. Maybe he spent most of his time reading? (He mentions at one point that he was reading all twelve volumes of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.) Much of the rest of the book is given over to descriptions of the countryside—very good descriptions, I might add—and other amateur interests of Brenan’s: archaeology, botany, history, poetry, folklore, and anthropology.

As that list suggests, Brenan was an exceptionally well-rounded and well-educated man. Yet he doesn’t manage to translate this into interesting or insightful writing. Each chapter is much too short and too sketchy to provide any real understanding for the reader; and besides, I often felt that Brenan wasn’t the most trustworthy person to consult in these matters, and my skepticism got in the way of my enjoyment. In the introduction, Christ Steward suggests that Brenan’s versatility is a reproach to our overly specialized age. Yet for me this book taught the opposite lesson: if you want to do serious intellectual work, you’ve got to specialize. Otherwise, you end up like Brenan, with a superficial understanding of many things but a deep understanding of nothing in particular.

Brenan’s excellent prose might have been expected to remedy this situation. And indeed, much of the book is very impressively written. Nevertheless, even here Brenan irked me a little. First was his habit of using “one” in his descriptions of the countryside:

One flies over the villages in the air, one seens their strange names on the map, one may even, if one leaves the main road, bump past them in a car, but their life remains as mysterious at that girl with the unforgettable face one caught sight of for a moment through the window of a railway carriage.

Second was his habit of using “would” to describe his routines and village life:

I would come back tired and stiff from a long expedition and, while I washed and changed my clothes, the fire would be lit and a meal brought in. My post would be waiting for me and a copy of the Nation—that ancestor of the New Statesman—and over my coffee I would read my letters and begin to answer them.

This second habit I found especially distracting, because I’ve caught myself doing the same thing in my own writing and have tried to get rid of it as much as possible.

Both of these habits—using the impersonal “one,” and frequently using “would”—reinforce the feeling of distance and coldness that I experienced. It would have been much better, I think, not to tell us of what “one” would see, but of what he saw; not to tell us of what “would” happen, but of what did happen. There are too many generalities in this book and not enough specifics; there is too much description and not enough action.

Nevertheless, the book redeems itself in several places. The first is Brenan’s description of Virginia Woolf’s visit, in which he gives us an excellent portrait of her personality and also some details about his experience in the Bloomsbury Group. I actually got the feeling that Brenan was not a little in love with Woolf, his descriptions of her are so vivid and so thoughtful. The other standout chapter was Brenan’s account of his visits to the brothels of Almeria. The brothels themselves sounded dull, but the companion Brenan takes with him was a real character. But then just as the book is ending, Brenan tells us that he won’t give an account of Bertrand Russell’s visit—which really frustrated me, since I think that would have been another great chapter.

In any case, it must be admitted that this book is probably the most readable account of a time and place that no longer exists. According to the Wikipedia article, now there is a sizeable expat community of British people living in the town, probably in part thanks to this book. Still, I can’t help being disappointed that something with so much potential came out so mediocre. Wasted potential is always vexing.

View all my reviews