What to Read and Why
Reading is among the most private, the most solitary things that we can do. A book is a kind of refuge to which we can go for the assurance that, as long as we are reading, we can leave the worries and cares of our everyday lives behind us and enter, however briefly, another reality, populated by other lives, a world distant in time and place from our own, or else reflective of the present moment in ways that may help us see that moment more clearly. Anyone who reads can choose to enter (or not enter) the portal that admits us to the invented or observed world that the author has created.
I’ve often thought that one reason I became such an early and passionate reader was that, when I was a child, reading was a way of creating a bubble I could inhabit, a dreamworld at once separate from, and part of, the real one. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a kind, loving family. But like most children, I think, I wanted to maintain a certain distance from my parents: a buffer zone between myself and the adults. It was helpful that my parents liked the fact that I was a reader, that they approved of and encouraged my secret means of transportation out of the daily reality in which I lived together with them—and into the parallel reality that books offered. I was only pretending to be a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, when in fact I was a privileged child in London, guided by Mary Poppins through a series of marvelous adventures. I could manage a convincing impersonation of an ordinary fourth-grader, but actually I was a pirate girl in Norway, best friends with Pippi Longstocking, well acquainted with her playful pet monkey and her obedient horse.
I loved books of Greek myths, of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, and novels (many of them British) for children featuring some element of magic and the fantastic. When I was in the eighth grade, I spent most of a family cross-country trip reading and rereading a dog-eared paperback copy of Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen, a writer who interests me now mostly because I can so clearly see what fascinated me about her work then. With a clarity and transparency that few things provide, least of all photographs and childhood diaries, her fanciful stories enable me to see what I was like—how I thought—as a girl. I can still recall my favorite passage, which I had nearly memorized, because I believed it to contain the most profoundly romantic, the most noble and poetic, the most stirring view of the relations between men and women—a subject about which I knew nothing, or less than nothing, at the time.
The passage comes from a story entitled “The Roads Round Pisa.” Augustus, a Danish count, is traveling in Italy, where he meets a young woman disguised as a boy. He admires her confidence and forthrightness, and he realizes that he has, all his life, been looking for such a woman. Their flirtation culminates in the following conversation, heavy with suggestion as it delicately euphemizes and maneuvers its way around its real subject, which is sex:
“Now God,” she said, “when he created Adam and Eve . . . arranged it so that man takes, in these matters, the part of a guest, and woman that of a hostess. Therefore man takes love lightly, for the honor and dignity of his house is not involved therein. And you can also, surely, be a guest to many people to whom you would never want to be a host. Now, tell me, Count, what does a guest want?”
“I believe,” said Augustus . . . , “that if we do, as I think we ought to here, leave out the crude guest, who comes to be regaled, takes what he can get and goes away, a guest wants first of all to be diverted, to get out of his daily monotony or worry. Secondly the decent guest wants to shine, to expand himself and impress his own personality upon his surroundings. And thirdly, perhaps, he wants to find some justification for his existence altogether. But since you put it so charmingly, Signora, please tell me now: What does the hostess want?”
“The hostess,” said the young lady, “wants to be thanked.”
The hostess wants to be thanked? What does that even mean? Is that—to answer Freud’s question—what women want? A polite expression of gratitude? What about pleasure, kindness, loyalty, respect . . . ?
And yet, decades later, I can see how this poetic discussion of the erotic, with only the most vague and delicate suggestion of the mechanics of sex, would have appealed to me at thirteen. How I longed to meet a man someday who would court me with language only a few steps removed from that of the medieval troubadours; how divine it would be to experience a seduction that would verge so closely on poetry. And how I wanted to be the sort of young woman who could travel on her own, charm a man with my courage and independence, and come up with the perfect punch line to answer his mannerly disquisition on what the sexes desire from each other.
I can still see the charm in the passage, even though it seems quaint, artificial, hopelessly old-fashioned. What’s more important is that reading it functions, for me, like a kind of time machine, transporting me to the back seat of our family car, crossing the Arizona desert, being urged to just look at the Grand Canyon while I was somewhere else: near Pisa, in 1823, listening to a man and woman have the type of conversation that I hoped to have someday with a handsome (and preferably aristocratic) stranger.
All of which seems to suggest: reading is not exactly like being alone. We are alone with the book we are reading, but we are also in the more ethereal company of the author and the characters that author has created. There I was in the car, with my parents in the front seat, my younger brother beside me, and Isak Dinesen, Count Augustus, and the brave little cross-dresser all floating around in my consciousness.
We may find ourselves surrounded by dozens, even hundreds, of imaginary people, or deep inside the mind of the man or woman whom the narrator has designated to stand at the center of the action. We can close the book and carry these characters around with us, much the way a child can transport any number of imaginary friends from place to place. And because they are imaginary, we can always stop reading without hurting their feelings, a transaction far less complicated than most of our dealings with flesh-and-blood human beings.
Lately it’s been noted that this privacy has been at least partly compromised when we read on electronic devices that are able to monitor how much of a book we read, where we stop, and what we reread. It’s disconcerting to think about, and yet (especially if we are as engrossed in a book as we wish to be) it’s possible to forget about these invisible watchers, who at least aren’t talking on—or checking—their phones. And of course we can always read a “physical book,” which will never disclose the secrets of our reading habits.
Reading and writing are solitary activities, and yet there is a social component that comes into play when we tell someone else about what we have read. An additional pleasure of reading is that you can urge and sometimes even persuade people you know and care about, and even people you don’t know, to read the book you’ve just finished and admired—and that you think they would like, too. We can talk about books to our friends, our colleagues, our students. We can form and enjoy communities that we wouldn’t have otherwise had. Read Proust and you have something in common with other readers of Proust: not only the thrill of experiencing a marvelous and complex work of art, but the fact that you and those others now have, as your mutual acquaintances, his enormous cast of characters. You can gossip about people you know in common. Can you believe what happens to the Baron de Charlus by the end of the novel?
Almost twenty years ago, the novelists Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard put together an anthology entitled You’ve Got to Read This, to which a group of writers contributed an introduction to a favorite short story of their own choosing. (I wrote about Isaac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant.”) I’ve always thought that every book about reading and about books should be called You’ve Got to Read This. In fact, I might have called this book that had the wonderful Hansen-Shepard anthology not already been sitting on a bookshelf in the study in which I am writing this. I’ve also thought that “You’ve got to read this” should be the first line of every positive book review. The essay about Roberto Bolaño’s great novel 2666, first printed in Harper’s magazine and included here, begins with a description of that impulse, of the desire to say just that, to direct magazine readers toward a great novel.
I’ve always been delighted when an editor asked me to write an introduction to a classic that is being reissued in a spiffy new edition with a stylish, handsome new cover. Because what I am doing, basically, is saying: You’ve got to read this—and here’s why. I feel the same way about certain book reviews that, to me, are a way of telling people—strangers—about something terrific I think they should read. Drop everything. Start reading. Now.
Some of the essays collected here are introductions to republished classics. Others are reviews of books that I particularly admired and enjoyed. Mixed in are a few essays that attempt to grapple with the social and political conditions that inform our reading habits and the judgments we make about books. Others (“On Clarity”) address problems that beginning writers may find themselves facing. Still others are less about reading in specific than about art in general, but have so much to do with what I think about literature that I have chosen to include them. It’s why I decided to put “Ten Things That Art Can Do” at the beginning of the book; in my view, the ideas, thoughts, and observations in that essay inform everything else.
The essays gathered in this volume contain reading suggestions and imprecations, records of enthusiasms, pieces that start with particular books and move toward the larger subject of how and what and why we read: why books can transport and entertain and teach us, why books can give us pleasure and make us think. Ultimately, what I am writing about here are the reasons why we continue to read great books, and why we continue to care.
One: Art can be beautiful.
That is all it has to do. That is the only thing we require of it. But what do we mean by beauty? Did the cave dwellers think, Hey, that’s really beautiful when someone drew the first bison on the wall? Did anyone think, That’s beautiful when the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic invited the gallery audience to cut her with razor blades—or shoot her?
Critics and philosophers have devoted their entire lives to defining beauty, while artists have pursued it from another part of the brain. Is there a meaning of beauty on which we can agree? Is a Netherlandish portrait beautiful? What about Vermeer’s The Love Letter? Cézanne’s apples? Perhaps it would be possible to know nothing about art, to have never seen a painting, and to look at any one of those works and think, Well, that is really gorgeous.
But what about those early viewers who saw Cézanne’s apples as the smudgy scrawlings of an untalented child? What about Jackson Pollock? It took me years to see the beauty in his paintings. When I say that there is nothing so beautiful as a certain phrase in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, or Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, or Miles Davis’s “Flamenco Sketches,” or Mary Wells’s version of “You Beat Me to the Punch,” what am I saying, exactly?
Unraveling the word beauty can get us so ensnarled that it’s no wonder that for a time, critics and academics and even some artists agreed that it was probably better not to use it at all. For all I know—I haven’t kept up—this taboo still exists. And, really, who can blame anyone for not wanting to sling around this vague, loaded, indefinable, and antiquated term in the learned journals? Though it does seem a little strange to ban the word from the conversations of people for whom it is a matter of life and death.
The Greeks, at least, had some ideas: order, harmony, structure. But all of that had gotten a radical shaking up even by the time of, let’s say, Hieronymus Bosch. If we think the Apollo Belvedere is beautiful, what do we say about the naked bottom and legs of a man emerging from a strawberry and scurrying around Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights?
Obviously, content is only a fraction of what matters. There’s beauty of conception and beauty of execution, which is, to oversimplify, part of what makes Cézanne’s apples different from the apples we doodle on our notepad or the scribblings of a child. Conception and execution are major factors in the narratives on the page and screen that I tend to remember as beautiful. For example, I find great beauty in the scene in Mavis Gallant’s story “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street,” in which the self-deluded and heartbreakingly sad office worker at the League of Nations in post–World War II Geneva is asked to take home a mousy co-worker who has gotten drunk at a costume party. What happens (nothing happens) may well be the most important event in their lives. Yet one of them thinks that the nothing that happened was about the two of them not having sex, while the other thinks that “nothing happened” meant that she didn’t commit suicide, as she seems to have considered doing.
There is a startling and deeply melancholy scene in the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolanyi’s novel Skylark. An elderly couple’s beloved, burdensome, unmarried thirty-five-year-old daughter has gone away on vacation, freeing them for a week of unaccustomed pleasures and shattering realizations about their domestic life. On her return, they go to greet her at the station. Dressed in an unflattering rain cape and a silly hat, and carrying a scruffy pigeon, her new pet, in a cage, she is even homelier than they remember, just as she is even more intensely the love of their life and their jailer. Suddenly they notice that autumn has arrived. “A desolate boredom settled over everything. The warm days are over.” Why should that seem beautiful?
And why should I be so taken with the moment in Mike Leigh’s film Life Is Sweet when Timothy Spall, as the sublimely geeky Aubrey, opens a restaurant, a bistro called the Regret Rien, fashioned on an Edith Piaf theme. “Très exclusive.” On opening night, no customers come, and Aubrey, who has been drinking wine as he waits for the nonexistent onslaught of diners, trashes the place and winds up passed out on the floor, stripped down to a pair of unnervingly creepy Speedos. Why do I love the marvelous scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather in which Sonny speaks out of turn and the Tattaglia family knows that the Corleones are vulnerable and can be attacked? And why do I think there is beauty in every moment of Michael K. Williams’s portrayal of Omar Little in David Simon’s TV series The Wire?
There is little that could be considered conventionally pretty about watching Gallant’s filing clerk, dressed as a hobo, nearly fall down in a Geneva street, or Kosztolanyi’s woman arrive, with her pigeon, at a rural Hungarian train station, or Leigh’s chef—a man with heartbreakingly hilarious pretensions to coolness and sophistication—charging around his empty bistro, overturning elaborately set tables, or a Mafia don’s meeting with his enemies and his unruly son, or a scar-faced Baltimore hit man sticking up a drug dealer. But how, I wonder, can we not feel the beauty of these scenes?
Each of us has heard—and probably, in a charitable moment, thought—that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but each of us secretly believes that we are the one with the eye for beauty. Why do I see these melancholy scenes, these dark moments, as beautiful? It’s a question to which there is no real answer, except to mention truth, another difficult and complicated thing, and to add that we do feel we know beauty when we see it. We could quote Emily Dickinson’s famous definition of poetry as applying also to beauty:
“If I read a book and it makes me so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.” Or, less gloriously, we have Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s ruling that hard-core pornography is difficult to define, but “I know it when I see it.”
Two: Art can shock us.
I don’t mean shock as in bad news or brutal murder or horrific catastrophe or embarrassing scandal. I don’t mean shock as they did on a reality show that ran some years ago, a series entitled Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, modeled after Top Chef. In one episode, the contestants competed to make “shocking art.” Among the judges was the photographer Andres Serrano, once considered shocking by, among others, the late Senator Jesse Helms, who was shocked that a government arts grant should go to a person who had photographed a crucifix submerged in a vial of urine. (Did Andres Serrano think, Beautiful! when those contact sheets came back?) On the show, Serrano spoke about the difficulty of making art that shocks at this particular political and historical moment. And in fact I wasn’t shocked enough to remember which artist contestant won.
In any case, I mean something less aesthetic and moral and more neurological: the shock that travels along our nerves and leaps across our synapses when we look at a Titian portrait or read a Dickinson poem. We understand it, and we don’t. It’s irreducible; it can’t be summarized or described; we feel something we can’t describe. I often think of that feeling as resembling those moments in dreams when we fall off a cliff and then discover we can fly. Dropping, then soaring. We can no more explain or paraphrase or categorize our response than we can explain why a Chinese scroll can transport us out of a gallery or museum and return us, moments later, jet-lagged, giddy with the aftereffects of travel through time and space. The effect of those tiny art shocks is cumulative and enduring. Enough of them can change our consciousness, perhaps even our metabolism. Dieters, take notice.
I’ve always hoped that someone would fund a research project to measure the changes that occur in our brain waves when we lose ourselves in a book. What if it turned out that these changes have a beneficial effect on our health, not unlike the benefits we have been told can be obtained from exercise and a daily glass of red wine? What if reading were proved to be even healthier than exercise? Imagine the sudden spike in reading everywhere as the health and longevity conscious allowed their gym memberships to lapse and headed to the library and the bookstore?
Three: Can art make you a better person?
Not long ago, I read a Facebook post that suggested that Shakespeare was a sadist for subjecting us to something as gloomy as King Lear. And I thought of how a doctor’s assistant once told me that the only books and films she likes are those that are cheerful and uplifting, because there’s enough doom and gloom in the world without looking for more. She said she hardly ever reads fiction, because it’s so depressing. She prefers books on philosophy. “What kind of philosophy?” I asked. She said, “Well, actually, I like books that tell you how to be a better person.”
Art will not necessarily make you a better person. When I was a child, my favorite aunt was a great fan of Wagner, and though my mother and father teased her for going to see fat women in braids and Viking helmets sing for five hours at a time, she secretly indoctrinated me into her cult of Wagner. I can still picture the cover of her record of Tristan und Isolde. Later, of course, I discovered that Wagner was extremely anti-Semitic and a favorite of the Nazis and so forth, facts that had little bearing on my falling out of love with Wagner as an adult. Recently I learned from a documentary something that everyone else has probably known about forever: the manic intensity of Hitler’s passion for Wagnerian opera, how he felt his whole life had changed after seeing a performance of Rienzi, whose hero, a medieval Roman tribune, leads his people to rise up against their oppressive rulers. Hitler would say of that performance, “It was in that hour that it all began,” and claim that Nazism could not be understood without understanding Wagner.
Hitler had notoriously terrible taste in visual art, a predilection for the cream-puff nudes of kitschy French painters like Bouguereau. There is a famous story about Hitler’s visit to Berlin’s National Gallery in the 1920s. Enraged to discover that Germany did not possess any work by Michelangelo, his favorite artist, Hitler was mildly consoled to find a painting by Caravaggio—Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio—whom Hitler thought was the same person as Michelangelo Buonarroti. Next, he became enchanted by Correggio’s highly erotic depiction of Leda and the Swan, though, when his guide discovered him, transfixed before the painting, Hitler insisted that he was only admiring the subtle play of light and shadow. Finally, and most revealingly, he sought out Rembrandt’s Man with the Golden Helmet, an image that, Hitler claimed, proved Rembrandt was a true Aryan who, despite the many works he’d done in the Jewish Quarter, had no real interest in the Jews after all. Hitler’s henchmen had better taste—refined enough to know what they wanted when they looted the museums and private collections of Europe and carried off countless masterpieces. But Hitler had originally wanted to be an artist, and during his final days in the bunker, he puttered over an architectural model showing his plan for remaking the Austrian city of Linz.
It’s true, or I want to believe it’s true, that there is something humanizing about the intimacy a book creates between the author and the reader, between the reader and the character, something humanizing about experiencing the vision and work of another human being. We are so accustomed to speaking about “the humanities” that we no longer think about why these fields of inquiry and study are called that. One of the things that most disturbs me about the way in which children may come to prefer electronic devices and video games to books is that they no longer know or intuit that an individual person has created the thing that is the source of their pleasure. Rather, they come to understand, consciously or subconsciously, that a corporation has provided them with entertainment and happiness. Thank you, Google. Thank you, Apple.
Years ago, I used to comfort myself with the thought that reading a novel by an author from any of the countries in what George W. Bush termed the Axis of Evil could persuade us that the men and women and children who inhabit these so-called evil lands are—beneath the surface created by custom and culture—very much like us and our friends and loved ones. That is, no more or less good, no more or less evil. But how much will that realization influence our actions?
While writing a book about The Diary of Anne Frank, I met a group of inspiring young people who worked for the Anne Frank Foundation and were convinced that Anne’s diary could turn other young people away from the path of prejudice and violence. In their company, I, too, was convinced. I wanted to be convinced. But some crabby, skeptical inner voice couldn’t help playing devil’s advocate—asking who, high on the chemical rush of violence, on the brink of committing a hate crime or perpetrating a genocidal massacre, would be stopped by the memory of a young girl’s diary?
In any case, it is neither the responsibility nor the purpose of art to make us better human beings. And it’s no wonder that art that takes on this solemn task so often winds up being didactic, preachy, cloying, and less effective than art with a less exalted notion of its purpose. Careers and talents have been ruined when an artist was intoxicated and ultimately silenced by an exaggerated sense of importance. Among the more famous and tragic examples of this was Nikolai Gogol; the misery he experienced in trying to write a sequel to Dead Souls was intensified by his belief that the second volume of his masterpiece was destined to save Russia.
In one of his letters, Chekhov said:
You scold me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so forth. When I am writing about horse thieves, you want me to say that it is evil to steal horses. However, everyone knows this already without my having to say so. Let the members of the jury pass their judgment. My job is merely to show what sort of people these horse thieves are. Here is what I write: we are dealing with horse thieves here, so bear in mind that they are not beggars but well-fed men, that they are members of a cult, and that for them stealing horses is not just thieving but a passion. Certainly, it might be nice to combine art with preaching, but for me personally this is exceptionally difficult and technically next to impossible. After all, if I want to describe horse thieves in seven hundred lines, I have to talk and think and feel as they talk and think and feel; otherwise, if I let myself get subjective, my characters will fall apart and the story will not be as concise as all very short stories need to be. When I am writing, I rely on my readers, and I trust them to fill in any subjective elements that might be missing.
Four: Though art cannot teach us how to be better human beings, it can help us understand what it means to be human beings.
If you were to read every novel and story ever written, you would have a pretty good—if not entirely complete—sense of the range of qualities and ideas and emotions that characterize our species. Stare at a Rembrandt or a Rodin or a Helen Levitt photograph long enough and afterward people look different: lovelier and more complex, if not necessarily more explicable to themselves or us.
Art—and here I am speaking not of music or abstract painting but of the narrative and figurative, of literature and portraiture—can describe certain experiences that seem to be common to human beings: birth, death, procreation, falling in and out of love. It can show us that we share these experiences with other human beings. In depicting the emotions and longings and acts that we might not choose to discuss with our families or our neighbors, art can diminish our loneliness and solitude. Books in which the characters express negative emotions—or even commit crimes—can console those who have experienced similar emotions or have committed—or merely considered committing—a crime.
Five: Art can move us.
Surely it must be possible to walk into the cathedral of Chartres or Borromini’s Chapel of Saint Ivo, or to stand in front of Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter, and feel nothing. But it might require some effort. To say that we try to avoid art that is depressing or disturbing is a backhanded compliment to its power to affect us.
Perhaps, at some point, each one of us experiences his or her own version of the Stendhal syndrome, the psychosomatic response (which can involve fainting, a rapid heartbeat, vertigo, and hallucinations) to the power of art, a disease first identified with and endemic to Florence, where even today a few cases are diagnosed every year.
For years, I suffered from an inability to hear Mozart performed in public without bursting into tears. The quality of the performance made no difference at all, as I discovered when hearing a middle school string orchestra play a simplified excerpt from the “Jupiter” Symphony. Once, after a crowd of youths had nearly rioted and almost broken down the heavy wooden doors before they were admitted to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli, where a crowd of exquisitely dressed Romans had assembled to hear Mozart’s Requiem, I started sobbing out loud. At moments, I’ve wondered whether these feelings would have been less intense if Mozart had been rich, successful, and sure of himself, like Handel, whose work I also love.
Six: Can art make us smarter?
My sons were in school when a study was published proving that students at Stanford scored better on standardized tests after listening to Mozart than did the control group, which hadn’t listened to Mozart. I prided myself on not being the kind of parent who made her kids play Don Giovanni on the way to take their SATs, though—confession—I did suggest that one of my sons put some Mozart on his Walkman (the forerunner of the iPod). Having taken so little advantage of the available information about the relationship between classical music and test taking, I was relieved when a more recent study questioned the results of the earlier research, though I’d liked the idea of Mozart, dead in his pauper’s grave, revived to help American students score on standardized testing.
Clearly, more research is needed. Is a Wallace Stevens poem an exercise for the brain? Will a half hour spent in front of a Velázquez help you ace the math exam? Will reading Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw make you realize—as any reader or judge or prospective juror or citizen of a democracy or any form of government should know—that two different conclusions can be drawn from the same set of facts? Will James’s novella make it easier for its readers to tolerate ambiguity?
Art can be informative, though it is always a mistake to equate intelligence with the amount of information one possesses. Read War and Peace and you learn something about the Napoleonic Wars. Look at a portrait by Bronzino and you find out how a certain class of people dressed in the sixteenth century. Read Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for an education in, among other things, the workings of a glove-making factory. Read Gabriel García Márquez to discover an earlier meaning of “banana republic,” and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 to learn about the murders of hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of women that have been taking place for decades along the U.S.–Mexico border. A film such as Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game or Michael Haneke’s Caché or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others can help us understand why people, at certain historical moments, make certain moral choices. And Otis Redding’s version of “Try a Little Tenderness” can step in to answer Freud’s question about what women want, or at least one of the things they want—in addition to equal rights and equal pay.
Art can make you smarter, if by smart we mean more aware, responsive, cognizant, quicker, and so forth. Art can make you more aware of the ways in which history, social class, race, gender, and good and bad luck affect us. Art is the cerebral, spiritual, and emotional equivalent of the toners we splash on our faces to improve our complexions. Art opens our heart and brain cells. Put Mozart on your iPod and you will do better on the exam, especially if you’ve studied.
Seven: Art is a time travel machine.
There is no better way, including the Ouija board and the séance, to get in touch with people who have been dead for hundreds of years. If you want to know how a seventeenth-century Dutchman saw light, look at a Vermeer. If you want to know how it felt to be a bored housewife in a nineteenth-century French town, read Madame Bovary. If you want a preview of an alternate or possible future, read Philip K. Dick. If you want to see how this country looked fifty years ago, study Robert Frank’s photos, or to see what Rome was like for a certain group of people in the 1960s, watch La Dolce Vita. If you want to know how it felt to live in a slaveholding society—that is to say, this country before the Civil War—Huckleberry Finn can tell you more than the most incisive, comprehensive, and meticulously researched history book ever written.
Eight: Art can not only transport us through time.
It can transcend and erase time as we discover that those characters squabbling over the inheritance in a Balzac novel are upsettingly like our relatives. Or that Billie Holiday knew how to sing a phrase in the way that would most affect you and only you, knew how to bend and hold a note until you couldn’t help but notice.
One marvelous thing about Proust is how his consideration of the relationship between art and life extends outside of his masterpiece to make you consider the relationship between its art and your life. Reading the opening section of Swann’s Way, in which the child insomniac is waiting for the sounds that indicate his mother is coming to kiss him good night, we are restored to that moment in childhood when we lay awake in the dark listening for a longed-for or dreaded noise. Thus we begin the book by achieving the hoped-for result of the project that the narrator attempts in volume after volume: recovering lost time, a project in which he eventually succeeds, thanks to the linden tea and the madeleine, whereas we readers have already succeeded, at least partly, by reading the opening section.
Nine: Can art protect us? Art can protect us.
If it can’t, why have so many people, probably starting with the first person who drew that bison on the wall, assumed it could? The conversation about whether tribal or indigenous art is actually art is, to my mind, as arid and pointless as the conversation about whether it should be forbidden to mention the word beauty. Consider those towering wooden figures made by the Asmat people, those nail-studded totems from Benin, the icons and reliquaries in the treasure vaults of cathedrals, or a Fra Angelico fresco on the wall of his brother monk’s cell, and convince me that art doesn’t have magic power.
Idolatry is only the most extreme form of art appreciation. According to the painter Alexander Melamid, the way we know that artists are the priests of art is that they all wear black. Regardless of whether we believe that our novel can make the rains come and help our crops to grow, art is the driftwood humans cling to when they worry, as they always have, that our species is drowning.
Ten: Art can give us pleasure.
Now we have come full circle, for to define aesthetic pleasure is as freighted, as complex, as arguable, and as impossible as defining beauty. Emily Dickinson likened poetry to freezing and partial decapitation. There is pleasure in watching the films of Chabrol and Kurosawa, and a related, if different, pleasure in admiring the skill with which Chardin paints a bubble or a dead rabbit. There is pleasure in observing the small but precise incisions with which George Eliot lays bare a soul, or the inventive turns of phrase with which Dickens sketches a vast, interconnected population, or the plot twists and bold declarations with which Kafka and Kleist persuade us to accept and believe the most improbable premises.
As my doctor’s assistant said, there’s enough gloom and doom in the world. How fortunate, then, that we have art to amuse us, move us, inform us, comfort us, protect us, and console us for what we already know: that life is strange and hard and often dark, and we should be grateful—more than grateful—for those pinpoints of radiance, the cord of runway lights that guides us back through time and death to the hand that first drew that bison on the wall.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, which was originally published anonymously in 1818 and which over the intervening years (thanks partly to a series of low-comedy theatrical adaptations) had become a bestseller, Mary Shelley offered a persuasive and romantic explanation of how her book came to be written. The account of where and how Mary Shelley’s novel originated may be among the most famous creation stories in literature; we know, or we think we know, the circumstances and the pressures under which a very young woman turned a sort of parlor game into a book that would long outlive her.
It was the summer of 1816. Mary Shelley was eighteen years old. Two years before, she had fallen in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a frequent visitor to the home of her father, William Godwin, the political radical, freethinker, novelist, and, most famously, author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Mary’s mother, the equally radical and perhaps even more unconventional Mary Wollstonecraft, had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a protofeminist work that argues for the importance of educating females.
Before conquering her disapproval of the institution of marriage in order to marry Godwin, who shared her opinion of state-sanctioned wedlock, Mary Wollstonecraft had endured an unhappy love affair with the painter Henry Fuseli. And she had borne an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, to an American entrepreneur and cad named Gilbert Imlay, whom she had met in Paris, where she had gone to observe, firsthand, the aftermath of the French Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft died of an infection within days of giving birth to her second daughter, Mary.
Having reversed his position on marriage, William Godwin wed again. Mary Godwin despised her new stepmother, who brought to the household her own son, Charles, and her daughter, Jane, a high-strung, impulsive girl two years younger than Mary. Jane, who would later rechristen herself Claire, was, for much of Mary Shelley’s early married life, the bane of her existence. Claire flirted intensely with Shelley, then threw herself at—and had a daughter with—Lord Byron.
When he began visiting Godwin, Shelley was married and the father of a child. Nonetheless, he and Mary fell passionately in love. They eloped and—together with fifteen-year-old Jane—left London for the Continent. What followed was a difficult period, its sufferings mediated only by the deepening of the young couple’s love. The emotionally volatile threesome traveled semi-constantly, under adverse conditions and nearly always on the verge of destitution. Mary gave birth to a baby daughter, who was born prematurely and who died after a few days.
Eventually Mary, Percy, and Jane (now Claire) came to rest at a cottage on the shores of Lac Léman, in Switzerland, not far from where Lord Byron, who had become Claire’s lover, was staying at the Villa Diodati. The group—Percy and Mary, Byron and Claire, and Byron’s physician, John William Polidori—had planned on spending the summer enjoying the beauties of the landscape and the lake. But when the weather became cold and rainy—a volcanic eruption had turned the summer into one of the most inclement in European history—they sought another way to amuse themselves.
Perhaps in search of a respite from the long hours of intense and fevered conversation, the friends, who had been reading ghost stories translated from the German, agreed (at Byron’s suggestion) to each write a tale of the supernatural.
The preface that Percy Shelley wrote to the original 1818 edition of Frankenstein—an introduction that caused many to conclude that the book had been written by the poet himself—contains a somewhat simpler, less personal, and more truncated version of the events leading up to the novel’s composition than his wife would offer thirteen years later: “The season was cold and rainy,” wrote Shelley, “and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends . . . and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.”
Shelley wrote, and never finished, a story set in childhood. A fragmentary work about a vampire was attributed to Byron and later published by Polidori, who was in fact its author. Less facile and more reticent than her lover and his friends, Mary claimed to have had a harder time with the assignment. Perhaps part of her difficulties stemmed from the tensions among the storytellers. Byron had little respect for Mary and, it seems, even less for Claire, who was pregnant with his child. Polidori seems to have been in love with Mary, and Shelley was torn between his admiration for Byron and his desire to protect Mary and keep peace within the group.
These fraught interpersonal relationships were clearly a distraction. But what must have posed even more of a challenge for Mary was creating the effect that she sought: a story “which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. . . . I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations. Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.”
One can hardly think of worse circumstances under which to create fiction than this ur–writers’ colony from hell, but Mary Shelley persevered. She mostly listened to the conversations between her husband and Lord Byron, discussions about philosophy, about the possibility that “the principle of life” would ever be “discovered and communicated.” They spoke about attempts to reanimate corpses of the newly deceased by the application of galvanic shocks, and about Dr. Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have preserved bits of vermicelli under glass until they began to move of their own volition. “Perhaps,” she wrote, “the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endowed with vital warmth.”
During this time, Mary appears to have been thinking of a trip that she and Shelley took, not long after their initial departure from London, along the Rhine. There, they visited Frankenstein Castle. According to local legend, a young man named Johann Konrad Dippel was accused of robbing graveyards for corpses that he believed could be reanimated by injecting them with a mixture of blood and bone.
One night, still puzzling over Byron’s assignment and trying to sleep, Mary had a vision in which she saw “the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” She lay awake, trying to imagine a story that would frighten the reader as much as she had been frightened, then realized that she had found it. “‘What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.’ On the morrow I announced that I had thought of a story” and set herself to making “a transcript of the grim terrors of my waking dream.” Shelley suggested that the narrative might be longer than what Mary originally had in mind.
The book was completed almost a year later, in June 1817. In the interim, Mary and Percy had returned to England. Mary’s half sister Fanny Imlay committed suicide in October. And at the end of 1816, the Shelleys were married in London, their union having been facilitated by the fact that Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, had drowned herself. Mary was pregnant with Shelley’s child, doubtless a source of anxiety, since her first child, Clara, had died soon after birth and Mary’s own mother had died in childbirth. Little wonder, then, that the story Mary wrote would be so thoroughly steeped in violence, in grief, in loneliness and fear, in remorse and guilt.
In a survey of texts taught in schools, conducted by the Open Syllabus Project, Frankenstein is the fifth most commonly taught book, and the most commonly taught literary text. And according to the preface to Miranda Seymour’s marvelously lucid and comprehensive biography, Mary Shelley (2000), “A recent survey among American children showed [Frankenstein’s] name to be more familiar than that of the President.” Seymour fails to note whether the interlocutor asked the American children to distinguish between Frankenstein the scientist in Mary Shelley’s novel and Frankenstein the monster (played by Boris Karloff) in the 1931 film. My four-year-old granddaughter is very fond of a picture book entitled Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, in which the sandwich maker appears, with the cinematic monster’s unsightly facial stitches and elongated head, and with his complexion inexplicably turned bright green.
The fact that the novel is so widely taught is more perplexing. It’s understandable that, as a novel of ideas, it should serve as a convenient prompt to inspire class discussions on a range of important questions: What is a human being? Is it dangerous to play God? What are the ethical implications and limits of scientific research? What is the effect of isolation and alienation? But what makes it a slightly less obvious choice is the fact that it is a very difficult book—not so much because the language is old-fashioned but because the structure is exceedingly complex, containing stories within stories, letters within narratives, and multiple narrators. Each segment of the novel informs and reflects upon the tone and content of the others.
The form of Frankenstein, the nest of stories within stories, each told by a different narrator, has mostly fallen out of fashion. But the “frame story” was very much in vogue during the heyday of the Gothic novel, a genre popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Frankenstein is perhaps the most famous and enduring example, though Muriel Spark, in Mary Shelley: A Biography (1951), argues persuasively that Frankenstein “was the first of a new and hybrid fictional species.”
Shelley’s novel, Spark suggests, combines elements of the Gothic (the supernatural, the grotesque, the theme of pursuit, the frisson of terror) with a more modern portrayal of the relationship between Frankenstein and his monster. Caleb Williams, the novel that Mary’s father, William Godwin, published in 1794, is also a frame narrative and also locks its two main characters in a murderous game of flight and pursuit. Emily Brontë employed a similar strategy in Wuthering Heights, which appeared in 1847. In the novel, Lockwood’s narrative (and diary entries) give way to, and are interspersed with, the housekeeper Nelly Dean’s account of the dramatic events at Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange.
Gothic novels abound with manuscripts found in dusty trunks, with letters and pages ripped from journals, with narrators who happen to meet other narrators whose stories advance and explain their own. Such structures serve several purposes: they allow the writer to vary the pace and tone; they facilitate the introduction of information to which only one of the (multiple) narrators could have been privy; they provide the old-fashioned pleasures of eavesdropping on a storyteller telling a story; and they add an element of authority and credibility to a plot that contains fantastic and supernatural elements, and which might otherwise seem more unlikely than it does when we know that a presumably sane and reliable character is testifying to the truth of the wild events being described.
The advantages of this method were not lost on Henry James. The Turn of the Screw is framed as a story told by a man who knew the ghost-plagued governess when he was younger, and who is in possession of a manuscript, written in her hand, that is “beyond everything. . . . For general uncanny ugliness and horror and pain.”
Something similar could be said about the ugliness and horror of the events in Frankenstein. The outside frame of the narrative comes to us from a presumably reliable source: Captain Robert Walton, who is writing to his sister, Margaret. Having given up hope of succeeding as a poet, Walton is traveling to the North Pole to conduct scientific research. His desire to discover the secret of magnetism (“the wondrous power which attracts the needle”) makes him the ideal listener for Frankenstein’s tale of scientific experimentation gone disastrously wrong.
Everything about Walton’s voice suggests rationality and plausibility, even as he describes what may be the most bizarre and disturbing (and possibly the most memorable) image in the novel, a “being which had the shape of a man, but apparently of gigantic stature,” driving a dogsled across the icy wasteland. The next day, Walton’s shipmates rescue yet another traveler, this one “not a savage inhabitant of some undiscovered island, but a European” (albeit with a foreign accent), who is half-frozen, half-dead, emaciated, and stranded on an ice floe, also with a dogsled, though only one of his dogs survives. As we learn, this unfortunate traveler has been pursuing the giant whom Walton and his crewmates saw the day before.
This hapless voyager is Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who takes over the role of narrator as he tells his harrowing tale to the captain. He describes his youth, his upbringing, his family, his early interest in science, and the way in which that interest lured him down a dangerous path of inquiry. Fascinated by the work of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus, encouraged by his professors, he’d immersed himself in chemistry and anatomy. He had begun to wonder if the dead could be reanimated, if new life could be created from what remains after the soul has left the body. After spending “days and nights in vaults and charnel houses,” observing “how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain” and “the change from life to death, and death to life,” Frankenstein achieved a breakthrough: “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”
To follow Frankenstein from his graveyard researches to the point at which he is able to restore the dead to life places a certain strain on the reader’s credibility—even those readers steeped in the conventions of the Gothic. Ghosts? Certainly. Resurrection by science? Not so much. Wisely, Shelley has Frankenstein inform Captain Walton that he is withholding the secret of his scientific success for the captain’s protection, for his (and our) own good:
I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted: that cannot be; listen patiently until the end of my story, and you will easily perceive why I am reserved upon that subject. I will not lead you on unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.
Thus Mary Shelley finesses what we might now term “a plot hole.” Not only does the author advise us (in the interest of our own safety) to stop wondering about how, precisely, Frankenstein achieved his unholy effects, but she offers us yet another reason to keep reading, in case the mystery of the icy dogsled chase hasn’t sufficiently intrigued us. Read on, we are told, and you will find out why you would rather not be able to duplicate Victor’s experimental methods, “the horrors of my secret toil, as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay.”
The thrill of victory and discovery is transient. Almost as soon as he succeeds in bringing his creation to life, Frankenstein comes face-to-face with a being whose hideousness seems to augur the presence of an equally unappealing nature. One can’t help noting how often in the novel physical beauty is assumed to be an indication of good character, while ugliness is the manifestation of some moral flaw. This seemingly superficial but sadly accurate observation of how humans make judgments will become all the more important as the book progresses and as the monster—whose ugliness, size, and obvious abnormality are ultimately what make him a pariah—takes over the narrative and tells his own sad tale.
Frankenstein flees the monster and spends a restless night wandering the streets, where, by lucky accident, he runs into his friend Henry Clerval, who has just at that moment arrived from Switzerland. (The coincidence averse may have reason to wonder at many such points in the book.)
Clerval remarks on the fact that his friend seems to be unwell—a bit of an understatement, considering what the reader knows of Victor’s recent travails. Feeling that he has no choice but to bring Clerval back to his rooms, while at the same time fearing that the monster will still be there, Frankenstein returns home, in one of the novel’s most successful moments—successful in the sense that we feel Shelley truly inhabiting her hero; she is making us feel what he feels.
My hand was already on the lock of the door before I recollected myself. I then paused; and a cold shivering came over me. I threw the door forcibly open, as children are accustomed to do when they expect a spectre to stand in waiting for them on the other side; but nothing appeared. I stepped fearfully in: the apartment was empty; and my bedroom was also freed from its hideous guest.
What Victor first experiences as relief and joy is in fact a recurrence of exhaustion, fear, and horror; the monster has escaped. Victor falls ill and is nursed back to health by the loyal Clerval. Meanwhile, the narrative switches back to the epistolary form, in this case a letter from Victor’s beloved fiancée, Elizabeth. The letter serves to introduce a character—the noble and loyal servant (though, as we are informed, “a servant in Geneva does not mean the same thing as a servant in France and England”) Justine, who has nursed Elizabeth’s difficult aunt through her final illness, has gone home to witness her own unstable and unkind mother’s death, and has returned to be a help to the household. All in all, there is only good news, and Victor’s little brother William is reported to be thriving.
What seems like domestic gossip is in fact a clever setup for what is to follow: After a brief remission, during which Victor’s health rallies and he pays a polite, if not entirely honest, visit to his former teachers, another letter comes. This one is from Victor’s father, and it is in effect an announcement that the nightmare has begun in earnest. Little William has been murdered.
It has often been remarked: the strangeness of Mary Shelley calling the dead child William, which was the name of her own beloved son, born in January 1816. But it has just as frequently been observed that it is common for writers, especially young ones, to spur themselves on with some version of their fantasies of the worst that could happen.
The unfortunate Justine, whom we have heard so much about in Elizabeth’s letter, has been accused of William’s murder. Like Victor, who knows that his monster is guilty of the crime but is certain that no one will believe him if he tells the truth, the reader can only watch as Justine is convicted of, and executed for, killing the child.
One hesitates to spoil the rest of Mary Shelley’s wild, inventive, twisting, but admirably coherent plot—coherent, that is, by the standards of the Gothic novel, in which one often feels as if the author is piling event upon event to maintain a slightly frantic pace and an unbroken sequence of dramatic events. And yet one can’t help noting a striking section that not only changes the way we read the novel but also alters our understanding of its author’s sympathies.
Racked by guilt, wandering in a sort of desperately penitential way through the mountains, Victor again meets his monster, who now tells his own story: how he discovered a hut occupied by a blind man and his family; how he learned, from observing this family, about human behavior and the ideal sweetness that suffuses a household governed by love; how he was able to master the rudiments of language; how he taught himself to read by studying discarded books; how he first saw his reflection and understood how “deformed and horrible” he was; how he hoped that he could be accepted and welcomed by the old man’s family despite his frightening appearance; and how cruelly that hope was dashed. Now his only wish is that Victor will create another artificial being, a mate for the monster, so that he will have a companion and not be doomed to go through the world alone.
In the process of telling his unhappy story, the monster shows himself capable of a complexity of moral and philosophical reflection that the other characters—spurred by near-diabolic ambition or overwhelmed by tragedy—cannot or will not allow themselves. Hidden outside the blind man’s hut, listening to one of its residents read aloud from a book entitled Ruins of Empires, the monster reflects on the human condition:
“These wonderful narrations inspired me with strange feelings. Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle, and at another, as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm. For a long time I could not conceive how one man could go forth to murder his fellow, or even why there were laws and governments; but when I heard details of vice and bloodshed, my wonder ceased, and I turned away with disgust and loathing.”
How brilliant of Mary Shelley to have put these thoughts and these speculations into the brain and the mouth of a monster, and how savvy of her to realize that the questions he poses have never and will never be answered. Nor will we tire of asking these inquiries into the limits of science and the essence of a human being. Her novel functions as an intellectual challenge, inviting us to ponder the profound issues raised by the monster and by the very fact of his existence.
At the same time, Frankenstein exerts an emotional pull as powerful as the one for which Mary Shelley claimed, in her preface, to have strived: “One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.” To this day, her book remains terrifying, not only because it traffics in graveyard horrors, in child murder and reanimated corpses, but also because it speaks to the anxieties to which all of us are prone. Which of us is immune to the fear that we, like Victor Frankenstein, may discover that our own work, our proudest creations, the offspring of whom we are so proud may turn against us—and that, with all the best intentions, we may wreak mayhem and havoc on those we love most, and least wish to hurt?
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Anyone who doubts (as most writers do not) that some books have wills of their own, ideas about their shape and destiny and about the paths they mean to take, routes along which an author may feel less like the navigator than like a compliant traveling companion—anyone who has reservations about this may consider how many masterpieces have welled up from the gap between a writer’s intentions and the book that resulted. Working on Anna Karenina, Tolstoy imagined recording the deserved punishment that was visited upon a sinful woman—and gave us one of literature’s most deeply sympathetic heroines. Melville conceived of Moby-Dick as one of the ripping travel adventure yarns he’d told so successfully before, until his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne suggested he might want to steer his literary voyage toward the deeper waters of metaphysics.
In October 1860, when Charles Dickens was writing the first chapters of Great Expectations, he described his plans in a letter to his friend and future biographer John Forster:
The book will be written in the first person throughout, and . . . you will find the hero to be a boy-child, like David. Then he will be an apprentice. You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in The Tale of Two Cities. I have made the opening, I hope, in its general effect exceedingly droll. I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man in relations that seem to me very funny. Of course I have got in the pivot on which the story will turn too—and which indeed, as you remember, was the grotesque tragicomic conception that first encouraged me.
As commonly happened in his career, Dickens’s aesthetic goals were being heavily influenced by practical considerations. The weekly journal All the Year Round, which Dickens had founded in 1859, and which he co-edited and had made popular with serializations of his own novel A Tale of Two Cities and of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, had recently suffered a precipitous and worrisome drop in circulation. This decline was attributed to the public’s steadily waning interest in the novel that the magazine was currently serializing, A Day’s Ride: A Life’s Romance, by Charles Lever, a once-esteemed novelist who has had the misfortune to be remembered as the man whose failure inspired Dickens to step in and speed up the writing and publication of Great Expectations.
In Dickens’s view, the suspenseful, funny, audience-pleasing story he meant to write, and which would be kicked off by the grotesque confrontation between a plucky, frightened boy and an escaped convict, could function as a sort of literary life preserver, thrown out to rescue All the Year Round from going under and drowning.
In an earlier exchange of letters, Forster had expressed some reservations about the pressure that it would exert on his friend to write another big novel in segments to be published weekly, and about the effects that this pressure might have on the work itself. Dickens, who had already decided upon his novel’s title, explained how much depended on his decision—nothing less than the survival of the magazine in which he had a great emotional and financial stake.
The sacrifice of Great Expectations is really and truly made for myself. The property of All the Year Round is far too valuable, in every way, to be much endangered. Our fall is not large, but we have a considerable advance in hand of the story we are now publishing, and there is no vitality in it, and no chance whatever of stopping the fall, which on the contrary would be certain to increase. . . . By dashing in now, I come in when most wanted.
At the start of his lecture on Bleak House, Vladimir Nabokov wrote:
If it were possible I would like to devote the fifty minutes of every class meeting to mute meditation, concentration, and admiration of Dickens. However, my job is to direct and rationalize those meditations, that admiration. All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.
Many things amaze us about the life and work of Charles Dickens: his energy and productivity, the depth and range of his vision, the beauty of his sentences and the freshness of his wit, his ability to combine a prodigious literary career with parallel lives in the theater and as an editor, publisher, and traveler, to keep up a voluminous correspondence, to make his own business arrangements, to undertake charitable projects, and to head a household that included ten children. Also unusual and admirable is the consistency of his ability to inspire, with such deceptive effortlessness, that tingle between the shoulder blades. But what most impresses many of his readers, and surely what most astonishes writers, is that he wrote and published his long, complicated, densely populated, elaborately plotted, and thematically ambitious novels in weekly or monthly serial installments.
Accustomed to the luxury of time and leisure, the freedom to do major and minor revisions, to produce multiple drafts, to have months or years in which to add or delete a single comma, we can barely comprehend the imagination and the technical skill required to compose an eight-hundred-page masterwork in regular installments of a length determined not by the needs of the artist but for the convenience of the printer. Though Dickens wrote notes for some of his novels and sketched out the conclusion of Great Expectations in advance, this working method demanded a prodigious ability to keep a large cast of characters and an elaborate narrative constantly in mind. The astonishment we feel when we contemplate this strenuous mode of composition has, in my opinion, been best expressed in the question posed about Dickens, in an introduction to David Copperfield, by the novelist David Gates. “Was he a Martian?”
As Dickens plotted another novel about the social and moral development of a boy into a man, he reread David Copperfield and told Forster that he “was affected by it to a degree you would hardly believe.” His reason for going back to the earlier book, written a decade before, was “to be quite sure I had fallen into no unconscious repetitions.”
Perhaps he shouldn’t have worried so. Because in those intervening ten years, Dickens’s life and mood—and the man himself—had been greatly changed. He had separated from his wife, Catherine, an acrimonious rupture in the course of which he had forced his children to side with him against their mother. He had weathered a public scandal involving rumors that his sister-in-law Georgina was the mother of his sons and daughters, as well as gossip (the truth of which has been alternately established and challenged) that he had taken as his mistress the eighteen-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. His daughter Kate had married a man she didn’t love, in order, Dickens believed, to escape her father’s troubled household. He had begun to suffer from attacks of painful rheumatism and facial neuralgia. His brother Alfred died of tuberculosis at thirty-eight, and Dickens’s sons were beginning to show signs of having inherited the flaws that had landed their paternal grandfather in debtors’ prison.
Later, Dickens would tell Forster that the “never-to-be-forgotten misery” of these years (the late 1850s) had revived in him the “certain shrinking sensitiveness” that he’d experienced during the now famous humiliation of his early life, when, at the age of twelve, the fragile boy had been forced to work ten hours a day, six days a week, pasting labels on bottles of boot and stove polish, in full view of the public, in the window of a London blacking factory.
Though it addresses many of the same concerns—class mobility, urban life, the ways in which children are nurtured or (more often) mistreated, the effort required to solve the riddle of one’s own nature and identity—Great Expectations is in every way a darker book than David Copperfield. Despite Dickens’s stated intention—to write something funny and “exceedingly droll” that would reinvigorate the readership of All the Year Round with its grotesquerie and humor—Great Expectations is among the most melancholy of his novels, and the one in which we may find confirmation of our most troubling doubts (so contrary to the aspirational spirit of the Victorian age) about the possibility and limits of self-improvement.
Great Expectations is rich in set pieces, in scenes so vivid and fully imagined, so nearly complete in themselves, that we can shut the book and be sure that, whether we like it or not, an image or sequence has been branded forever on our psyches. Perhaps the most indelible of these is the picture of Miss Havisham’s room, where the clocks have been stopped and the light forbidden to enter, a domestic interior permanently frozen in some quasi-psychotic attempt to turn back time to the moment when the bride-to-be’s heart was broken by the suitor who disappeared on her wedding day. No matter how familiar we are with the brushstrokes with which Dickens paints this deliriously creepy setting, no matter how many times we have read the novel and how well we think we know it, it’s thrilling to be guided once more along the banquet table and past the disgusting remains of the wedding cake:
A fire had been lately kindled in the damp old-fashioned grate, and it was more disposed to go out than to burn up, and the reluctant smoke which hung in the room seemed colder than the clearer air—like our own marsh mist. Certain wintry branches of candles on the high chimney-piece faintly lighted the chamber: or, it would be more expressive to say, faintly troubled its darkness. It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember it seemed to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstance of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.
There is, of course, no substitute for reading the novel, but I do want to recommend, to lovers of Great Expectations, the 2011 BBC miniseries based on the book. The casting of the remarkable Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham suggests something that, as far as I know, has never been intimated by any of the previous cinematic or theatrical adaptations of the novel: namely, that Miss Havisham was, and—regardless of the ruined state in which Pip meets her—is still a great beauty. Utterly mad and ferociously vengeful, but lovely nonetheless.
Quotable aphorisms and astute psychological observations are liberally sprinkled throughout the novel. Worried that Joe’s country manners may arouse the contempt of the despicable boor Bentley Drummle, Pip observes, “So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses are usually committed for the sake of the people whom we most despise.” Even as the plot speeds us forward, we pause to reflect on the psychological incisiveness of moments such as the one in which Pip’s guilt over leaving Joe and Biddy for London makes him resent them for their grief about his departure.
There are extraordinary flights of dialogue, thrilling passages such as the one that records the giddy rhetoric of euphemism and avoidance with which the lawyer Jaggers avoids mentioning certain truths of which both the speaker and the listener are uncomfortably aware, and moments when a single word (kindly Herbert Pocket reassures an insecure actor that an abysmal performance of Hamlet has gone “capitally”) tells us all we need to know about the person who has said it. Though Dickens has been accused of using verbal and physical tics as a means of creating caricatures without having to delve beneath a shallow and quirky surface, the gestures and habits of speech in Great Expectations are particular and telling. The way in which Pip catches the convict at the Three Jolly Bargemen stirring his rum-and-water with a file—a bold and secret reference to the stolen tool with which Pip helped free Magwitch—is among the most inspired examples of a small but meaningful physical gesture anywhere in fiction.
Landscape and weather are described in a seemingly effortless shorthand that makes it seem as if it were the easiest thing in the world to get nature and climate down on the page without resorting to cliché. We are introduced to characters in homes and places of business furnished with Dickens’s astute and unfailing awareness of how decor reflects the deepest reaches of our souls. We are invited to compare the playhouse-cottage that Wemmick has created for himself and his aged father with the self-serious crepuscular gloom of his employer’s office.
There are scenes of action and high suspense. Magwitch’s botched escape, near drowning, and rescue from the Thames can be studied as a model for the clarity and order that allow us to follow a scene of roiling, fast-paced, densely populated, and potentially confusing action. There are touching events, such as the death of Pip’s sister, a formerly brutal woman brought low by an assault that alters the plot and determines one of its many dramatic turns. And there are satisfying parallels, among them the likeness between Pip’s sister’s deathbed apology and the repentance of the novel’s cruel queen bee, Miss Havisham.
Though the tightly constructed plot and massive cast of characters are appealing enough in themselves, the general reader, the writer, and the literary critic can find further entertainment in tracking an elaborate web of patterns and themes through the novel. Fathers and sons, names and naming, generosity and selfishness, lying and sincerity, crime and punishment, love and sacrifice, sex and class, imprisonment and freedom, cowardice and courage, and forgiveness and revenge are just a few of the many threads with which Dickens stitches together his grand design. Though the book is full of mysteries and questions, discovering their solutions doesn’t mean that we enjoy it less on rereading, after we know where the plot is going and what secrets will be revealed. That knowledge only increases our admiration for how cleverly Dickens succeeds at keeping his readers in the dark until the light of truth illuminates the book’s many shadowy corners. For example, we repeatedly marvel at the skill with which Dickens piles on evidence to persuade us that Pip is correct in what he believes—what he wants to believe—about the identity of his benefactor.
You can open the book at random and find that the scene you are reading is thematically and structurally related to every other scene in the book, and functions like a column or beam to support the whole. Take, for example, Pip’s visit, in chapter nineteen, to Uncle Pumblechook, the self-important dealer in corn and seeds who so often takes false credit for Pip’s good fortune that, by the end, he seems convinced that he is actually responsible. Earlier, Pumblechook’s treatment of Pip has ranged from dismissive to mocking to abusive, reminding us how much of the novel (how much of Dickens’s fiction) deals with the mistreatment and powerlessness of children.
During the Christmas dinner, interrupted by the arrival of the soldiers hunting for Magwitch, Pumblechook regales the company by speculating on what would have happened if Pip had been born a pig: “Dunstable the butcher would have come up to you as you lay in your straw, and he would have whipped you under his left arm, and with his right he would have tucked up his frock to get a penknife out of his waistcoat-pocket, and he would have shed your blood and had your life.” Like almost everyone at the start of the book, Pumblechook feels free to manhandle the boy; one measure of young Pip’s helplessness is how often he is touched against his will and roughed up by the adults. When Pip visits, Pumblechook feeds him crumbs, waters his milk, and compulsively and punitively quizzes him on the multiplication tables so that “his conversation consisted of nothing but arithmetic.”
Inevitably, we are reminded of all this by the enormous change that occurs in Pumblechook when Pip, now under the protection of his mysterious benefactor, appears at his door in the finery newly acquired from the tailor and haberdasher. The former adult bully has been transformed into the obsequious peer and “dear friend.” Instead of pulling Pip from his chair and crudely rumpling his hair, Pumblechook grasps both of the boy’s hands in his; instead of starving him on a diet of crumbs and watered milk, Pumblechook offers him a choice of chicken or tongue, “one or two little things had round from the Boar, that I hope you may not despise.” Instead of reminding Pip of how fortunate he is to have enjoyed the harsh child-rearing practices of Mrs. Joe, Pumblechook invites Pip to look down upon the simpletons who have raised him.
So many of the novel’s themes—the powerlessness of children, the supreme importance of class, the ways in which our real or perceived social standing affects the ways in which we are treated—are evoked in this scene, which ends with a passage that reveals a great deal about Pip’s character: specifically, his dangerous susceptibility to the seductions of flattery and kindness, no matter how false or ill intentioned.
Then he asked me tenderly if I remembered our boyish games at sums, and how we had gone together to have me bound apprentice, and, in effect, how he had ever been my favorite fancy and my chosen friend? If I had taken ten times as many glasses of wine as I had, I should have known that he never stood in that relation towards me, and should in my heart of hearts have repudiated the idea. Yet for all that, I remember feeling convinced that I had been much mistaken in him, and that he was a sensible, practical, good-hearted, prime fellow.
In addition to all this, the scene of Pumblechook’s metamorphosis from tormentor to toady is extraordinarily funny. For, as Dickens promised Forster, there is plenty of humor in Great Expectations—sly turns of phrase, satirical observations, entertaining disasters such as the dismal performance of Hamlet that Pip and Herbert attend.
Often, in his work, Dickens—who hated disorderly households and was obliged to live in one as long as he remained with his understandably harried wife—finds great hilarity in depicting domestic chaos. Here, the joke is at the expense of the family of Matthew Pocket, whose wife is so obsessed with social position that Flopson and Millers, her inattentive servants, have assumed complete command of the home, much to the disadvantage of the neglected and imperiled baby.
Mr. Pocket was out lecturing; for he was a most delightful lecturer on domestic economy, and his treatises on the management of children and servants were considered the very best text-books on those themes. But Mrs. Pocket was at home, and was in a little difficulty, on account of the baby’s having been accommodated with a needle-case to keep him quiet during the unaccountable absence (with a relative in the Foot Guards) of Millers. And more needles were missing than it could be regarded as quite wholesome for a patient of such tender years either to apply externally or to take as a tonic.
There is much to be laughed at chez Matthew Pocket, and in a city and countryside populated by genial clowns, blowhards, and poseurs. But for all of its humor, Great Expectations is, as I have said, an intensely sad book. Dickens famously changed the ending on the advice of his friend and colleague Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who proposed altering the last meeting between Pip and Estella from an obviously final conversation to a more hopeful scene in which Pip takes Estella’s hand and sees “no shadow of another parting from her.” Even so, we feel that this ending, unlike that of David Copperfield or Little Dorrit, is not the sort of conclusion that allows us to cheer a happy couple’s ultimate emergence from adversity and darkness into harmony and light.
Despite the changed ending, we feel that Pip has lost Estella, just as he has lost his money, the care and help of Magwitch, and everything he might conceivably desire or value. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that he had sacrificed all this largely because of his own faults and failings, most of which he is conscious of but powerless to change: cowardice, snobbishness, thoughtlessness, disloyalty, misplaced ambition, and the complete lack of any idea of what it might mean to love someone and be loved in a way that goes beyond the adolescent pangs of unrequited longing.
At the same time, we notice (and it’s one of the wonders of the book) that none of this makes him any less understandable and sympathetic. In his dealings with Magwitch, near the end of the novel, he develops and demonstrates a new capacity (or perhaps just shows an untapped one) for sacrifice, gratitude, and compassion. But it’s too little, too late. Pip jumps into the Thames to save Magwitch, just as Dickens jumped in, with his novel, to save All the Year Round. Dickens did better than his hero: the magazine lasted till the end of his life, and he bequeathed it to his son Charley.
Throughout his career, Dickens worked and reworked the question of class mobility, seen from within and without, a topic with which he was intimately and painfully familiar. One of the most affecting scenes in Little Dorrit occurs when its heroine, having recently come into money, is on her way to Italy and struggling to reconcile her present incarnation with her recent past life as the angel of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Part of the scene’s power derives from our sense that Dickens is writing autobiographically, that he knows all too well how confusing and disorienting it is to have been poor—and to become wealthy.
But Little Dorrit is a good poor girl, and later a good rich one, whereas Pip is the creation of a writer who has learned that even the best of us may act from motives that mix decency with selfishness, irresponsibility, shallowness, pettiness, and desperation. For all his great expectations, for all his dreams and hopes and fears, Pip is never going to be anyone but himself—and that’s a problem. Society is another problem, as are class divisions and institutional lying. But Pip’s life, we feel, could have turned out more happily, or at least more satisfyingly, if he hadn’t so readily bought into the richest desires, the brightest baubles, the least rewarding or worthy behaviors.
The fate that keeps our higher selves bashing against the prison walls of our small, ignoble impulses is a difficult reality for anyone to absorb. And even as the novel draws us in, enthralls and amuses us, it’s always a little melancholy to watch Pip compelled to face those aspects of his personality that we know he will have to confront. I’ve often wondered why Great Expectations should have become one of the two Dickens novels (along with A Tale of Two Cities) most often assigned to high-school-age students. Perhaps because it’s one of his shorter books, among the most tightly plotted.
Actually, kids should read it—and keep on rereading it throughout their adulthood. It’s fun, it’s got an engaging plot, it’s smart and beautifully written. We feel we would have been among those nineteenth-century readers who returned, in droves, to buying the weekly issues of All the Year Round. In addition, it’s a novel that gives us plenty to ponder. It’s never too early or too late to meditate on the subject of what Pip discovers about the extent to which his all-too-human nature has affected the odds of his ever getting, or even knowing, what he wants from the world.
Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette
Reading the first chapter of Cousin Bette is like entering a foreign city that seems eerily like our own—and turning a corner and coming upon a brutal mugging in progress. Few novels have more violent beginnings, though the violence is all psychological and, seen from a distance, by a casual observer, may even pass for polite conversation.
The fierceness of Balzac’s courage and his reckless determination to portray the human comedy precisely as he saw it become clear when we consider how few contemporary writers would risk beginning a work of fiction with a scene so repulsive, and so brave in its refusal to hint or promise that, by the novel’s conclusion, sin will be punished, virtue rewarded, and redemption freely offered to the wicked and the innocent alike.
Eloquently translated by Kathleen Raine, Cousin Bette portrays a world in which almost everyone will do anything to anyone if sex and money are at stake, a milieu in which sex is routinely traded for money, a society in which friendships and alliances are forged to advance the most immoral motives, and in which only fools and martyrs are deluded enough to follow the outmoded promptings of honor, loyalty, and conscience.
Published in 1847, Cousin Bette was composed (as always, at breakneck speed) near the end of a prodigiously prolific career that produced nearly a hundred novels, novellas, and short stories. By then, Balzac had mastered the technical skill and the brilliant, gleeful assurance with which, at the start of Cousin Bette, he portrays the meeting between Monsieur Crevel and the Baroness Adeline Hulot—two Parisians with little in common except for the rapidity with which their social status has changed.
The former owner of a perfume shop, Celestin Crevel is a vulgar opportunist and libertine who has manipulated the fluid political climate and new atmosphere of social mobility to propel his rise along the shady margins of Parisian society. By the time the novel opens, in 1838, Crevel is already an ex–deputy mayor and wears the ribbon of a chevalier of the Legion of Honor. At once more dramatic and more deserved, Adeline Hulot’s ascent has, alas, proved more temporary. For some years after her beauty and dignity persuaded the Baron Hulot to marry her, despite her lowly Alsatian-peasant origins, she enjoyed a brief interlude of marital bliss. But now her beloved husband has succumbed to a tragic flaw that today—when practically every child is conversant with the latest psychological syndromes—would doubtless be diagnosed as a world-class case of sexual addiction.
The baron’s obsessive tendency to fall madly in love with, and subsequently enslave himself to, paradoxically cheap and expensive women has brought his family to near ruin. And though Adeline is aware that “for twenty years Baron Hulot had been unfaithful,” she has “kept a leaden screen in front of her eyes” and has chosen not to know the details until Crevel visits her at home and puts his terms very plainly: unless Adeline (who, at forty-eight, is still a beauty) agrees to sleep with him, her adored daughter, Hortense, will never marry, because Crevel will let everyone know that the once distinguished, once prosperous Hulots cannot afford to provide her with a dowry. And in case the faithful, long-suffering Adeline wonders how this dire situation came about, the ever thoughtful Monsieur Crevel has come to explain:
Having tired of his lover, Jenny Cadine, whom he corrupted when she was thirteen, the baron has stolen Monsieur Crevel’s own mistress, Josépha, the “queen of the demimonde,” an insatiably avaricious “Jewess” who has not merely “fleeced” the baron but “skinned” him to the tune of more than a hundred thousand francs. But all is not lost. If Adeline agrees to become Crevel’s lover—for ten years!—Crevel will give her the money for Hortense’s dowry.
This scene of breathtaking cruelty and blackmail—essentially, a rape in which both parties remain fully clothed—introduces and prefigures the themes that Balzac will develop throughout the novel: heartlessness, self-interest, meretriciousness, greed, revenge, sexual competition. The unnerving conversation between Crevel and the baroness will resonate later in the book, its echo amplified by a series of events that parallel and outdo this one in their sheer awfulness—most notably, another meeting between Adeline and Crevel, three years after the opening scene.
In this variation on the introductory chapter, the now desperate Adeline can no longer afford the luxury of virtue. She tearfully agrees to accept Monsieur Crevel’s proposition, only to learn that what had originally inspired the former perfumer was not, in fact, love or lust (motives for which there is much to be said, though perhaps not in this instance) but rather the darker, unhealthier, and even less sympathetic desire for revenge: specifically, revenge on her husband for having stolen Josépha. And now that Crevel has liberally helped himself to the favors of the baron’s newest obsession—the scheming, ambitious, and apparently irresistible Madame Marneffe, a civil servant’s wife who turns out to be more skillful and greedier than the most successful courtesans—Crevel no longer feels the compulsion to seduce and possess the baron’s wife.
Such summaries omit the telling details, the sharp observations, the nearly unbearable conversations, the sudden switches in argument and reasoning that portray precisely the nature of both participants, and the clever parallels that connect apparently dissimilar incidents and characters. Having earlier observed Madame Marneffe completing her calculatedly seductive toilette, we subsequently watch Adeline attempt something similar, only to ruin it when she reddens her nose by crying a torrent of real tears, as opposed to the few attractive droplets that Madame Marneffe would have shed. Correspondences such as these serve as cornerstones in the novel’s satisfying and surprisingly (given its interest in the consequences of uncontrolled lust and passion) orderly formal structure.
Summarizing the two parallel scenes helps us see what underlies the architecture and the spirit of the novel: the resolve and, again, the sheer bravery required to begin a book with an example of repugnant behavior and then have the general tone of events and the prevailing standards of conduct go pretty much straight downhill from there. As the plot progresses, vengefulness, greed, and unfeeling ambition are passed, like some sort of evil baton, from one to another of the small but undeservedly successful group of schemers and villains, both minor and major, that populate the novel.
Lurking on the edges of the Hulot family parlor, a room that stubbornly clings to gentility despite the frayed upholstery that Crevel helpfully points out, is Cousin Bette, a vengeful and resentful relative of Adeline’s. Unimpressed and unmollified by the sexual, marital, and financial humiliations to which her cousin is at the moment being subjected, the poor relation is utterly consumed by envy of Adeline’s privileged existence. Balzac dispatches Cousin Bette in a few swift, brutal strokes:
Lisbeth Fischer . . . was far from being a beauty like her cousin; for which reason she had been tremendously jealous of her. Jealousy formed the basis of her character, with all its eccentricities. . . . A Vosges peasant woman in all senses of the word—thin, dark, her hair black and stringy, with thick eyebrows meeting in a tuft, long, strong arms, flat feet, with several moles on her long simian face—such, in brief, was the appearance of this old maid.
Though she long ago “gave up all idea of competing with or rivaling her cousin . . . envy remained hidden in her secret heart, like the germ of a disease that is liable to break out and ravage a city if the fatal bale of wool in which it is hidden is ever opened.”
In fact, Bette proves capable of one of the book’s few acts of generosity and devotion: her support of, and attachment to, the gifted and impecunious Polish sculptor Wenceslas Steinbock. Thus she shows herself to be, like so many of Balzac’s most memorable characters, full of contradictions, immensely complex, and capable of great extremes—that is to say, she is a recognizable, plausible human, whose humanity we must acknowledge, however much we might wish to disown it.
In any case, when Bette’s outwardly disinterested but, at heart, possessive love for Wenceslas is thwarted, the “germ” does eventually break out, and the scorned Cousin Bette unleashes a fury that indeed outdoes hell’s. Bette sets in motion her evil plans for the unfortunate Hulot family—a campaign whose chances for success are dramatically improved when Bette’s neighbor, Madame Marneffe, realizes that the erotomaniacal Hulot is the perfect stepping-stone to assist her on her way to great wealth and social position, at least in the demimonde.
Thus Balzac demonstrates that greed and wickedness are equal opportunity employers, willing to make use of the services of a pretty married woman, an unattractive unmarried one, and an assortment of male characters, from the insufferable Crevel to the pathetic Monsieur Marneffe, who readily prostitutes his wife in the hopes of a modest career advancement.
From various motives, none of them good, these men and women conspire to impoverish and destroy Baron Hulot and his family. Of course, none of their schemes could succeed were it not for the baron’s own weakness. Yet Balzac seems to display a certain, perhaps grudging or involuntary, sympathy for a lover of women whose taste runs the gamut from hardened courtesans to preadolescent girls. Or perhaps the scene in which we watch Madame Marneffe prepare to make her conquests, and the rapidity with which even the uxorious Wenceslas succumbs to her charms, is meant to imply that no male (least of all one like Hulot) can successfully hope to resist the meticulously constructed, accurately targeted sexual allure of certain women.
One almost suspects that Balzac can’t help admiring a man who, like himself, possesses monumental appetites and energies, however misdirected. This suspicion reminds us, in turn, of the profound ambivalence that drove Balzac, who may have been the most obsessive shopper, collector, speculator—and (with the possible exception of Dostoyevsky and his gambling losses) debtor—in the history of world literature, to condemn, in novel after novel, a society that overvalues and worships the power of money. Balzac’s personal familiarity with the vice against which he most vehemently railed cannot help but add to the reader’s impression that the failings of his most unforgivable characters are, finally, only human.
Ultimately, what’s most shocking and inspiring about Cousin Bette is its sheer relentlessness, the steely mercilessness on the part of the author, which echoes and at moments even exceeds the pitiless schadenfreude of its title character. What hope does the novel offer? Not much, at least not for these individuals and their society. Throughout the book, women steal each other’s husbands, men steal each other’s mistresses, and everyone—male and female alike—conspires to steal one another’s money. Generosity and virtue are repaid with humiliation, betrayal, and the opportunity to discover some devastating piece of personal information. Certainly that is Adeline’s fate, from that first interview with Crevel to the book’s conclusion, when—having devoted herself to a form of charitable social work that furthers the institution of marriage, an institution that has ruined her life—she receives, as her earthly reward, the chance to see for herself the depths to which her husband has descended.
Nowadays, when critics make sure that the novelist understands the crucial importance of creating characters the reader can sympathize and identify with, approve of and like, when the book-buying public insists upon plots in which obstacles are overcome and hardships prove instructive, in which goodness and kindness are recognized and rewarded, few novelists would have the nerve to author a book as unsparing (and, for that reason, as exalting) as Cousin Bette. Reading Balzac’s masterpiece reminds us of the reasons why we need great literature: for aesthetic pleasure and enjoyment, beauty and truth, for the opportunity to enter the mind of another, for information about the temporal and the eternal. And for the opportunity to read about things that we may be reluctant to acknowledge but that we recognize, despite that reluctance, as true.
So much of what Balzac tells us has by now become much more difficult, indeed practically impossible (or impermissible), for us to admit to ourselves, or to say: the fact that the poor and the ugly might envy the beautiful and the rich, that our craving for sex and money is so powerful and so anarchic that it can defeat, with hardly a struggle, our better instincts and good judgment. Balzac, who knew about all these things from personal experience, continues to remind us, in novels such as Cousin Bette, what we humans are capable of—that is to say, what we are.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Ever since Middlemarch was published—in eight installments that appeared over the course of a year, beginning in December 1871—George Eliot’s magisterial novel has not only enthralled and delighted millions of readers but has also received some of literary history’s most enthusiastic and passionate tributes from other writers. When asked what she thought of the book, Emily Dickinson replied, in a letter to her cousin, “‘What do I think of Middlemarch?’ What do I think of glory?” In an essay on George Eliot, Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “magnificent . . . one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”—an often quoted, though odd, phrase, if only because, as the writer and critic Rebecca Mead has pointed out, it is a phrase that a child might use to describe an adult reading experience.
“No Victorian novel,” wrote V. S. Pritchett, “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.” Iris Murdoch praised Eliot’s “godlike capacity for so respecting and loving her characters as to make them exist as free and separate human beings.”
Julian Barnes told an interviewer from The Paris Review that “Middlemarch is probably the greatest English novel,” while Martin Amis described it as “a novel without weaknesses” that “renews itself for every generation.” Indeed, the way in which Middlemarch does seem perpetually to renew itself, to take on new meanings that reflect and speak to the experience, the age, and the mood of the reader, is the subject of a book, My Life in Middlemarch, in which Rebecca Mead describes first encountering the novel when she was seventeen, then again in her twenties, then returning to it in her forties when, like George Eliot, she found herself caring for stepchildren.
What is so captivating and enduring about this sprawling novel of more than eight hundred pages, a novel that is not only physically heavy, and weighty in every other way, but also, as Virginia Woolf points out, partly if not completely lacking in a certain sort of charm? Though the novel contains flashes of wit and humor, it only rarely offers us the fun that we enjoy in the company of Thackeray, Austen, or Dickens. What could Emily Dickinson have meant by “glory”? What is a novel for grown-up people? And why, like Mead, do readers keep going back to it and each time find a different book: a novel about a period that had been gone for decades before Eliot brought it back to life on the page, but whose characters are continually having experiences and confronting situations that seem so much like the experiences and situations we may find ourselves facing now?
How, we wonder, does an author who died in 1880 know as much as or more about our inner conflicts and struggles as our closest loved ones intuit, as much as we and our therapists labor to discover?
Here is Virginia’s Woolf’s crisp, eloquent, sympathetic, and ever so slightly snobbish account of the early years of George Eliot, the pen name of the woman who was born Mary Ann Evans and who would subsequently change her name to, or at least refer to herself as, Mary Anne, Marian, Marian Evans Lewes, and, after a late-life marriage to John Cross, Mary Anne Cross: “The first volume of her life is a singularly depressing record. In it we see her rising herself with groans and struggles from the intolerable boredom of petty provincial society . . . to be the assistant editor of a highly intellectual London review.”
One can easily see what Woolf meant about struggle. Mary Ann Evans consistently chose the hard road and bravely followed her principles, regardless of the consequences. She became an unbeliever and was shunned by her devoutly religious father, whom she later nursed when he was dying. With great difficulty, she translated David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus from the German. She wrote and published sharp criticism and essays, thus becoming the sort of intellectual woman—a bluestocking—guaranteed to earn the contempt of her brother Isaac, with whom she had been close.
Though we cannot read the story without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity . . . She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she . . . went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes.
Eliot met Lewes, a philosopher and literary critic, in a bookstore in 1851. They could not marry; Lewes already had a wife and children and was unable to obtain a legal divorce. But the couple lived and traveled together, in a harmonious partnership, until Lewes’s death, in 1878. Lewes valued and encouraged Mary Ann’s abilities, and the start of her life with Lewes coincided with the production of her greatest novels. Scenes of Clerical Life was published in 1858. A year later, Adam Bede appeared; the year after that, The Mill on the Floss. It was followed, within a few years, by the publication of Silas Marner, Romola, and Felix Holt, the Radical.
Eliot began working on Middlemarch in the late 1860s, but her work was sporadic and frequently interrupted, most shatteringly by the tragic death of Lewes’s son, Thornie, who had returned from Asia with an agonizing and fatal disease of the spine. Eliot’s first idea had been to focus on the country doctor who would eventually appear in Middlemarch as Tertius Lydgate. But after she began a short story entitled “Miss Brooke,” she decided to broaden the scope of her book.
That breadth and depth may have been part of what Emily Dickinson meant by “glory”: a view of the world so much wider than the dimensions of the confined space that the New England poet chose to inhabit. The citizens of Middlemarch must have been, in some ways, similar to those of Dickinson’s Amherst; the political quarrels, romances, professional hopes and disappointments, the happy and unhappy marriages would surely have resembled their counterparts in a quiet western Massachusetts town.
What a woman of Dickinson’s genius, ambition, and psychosocial limitations could not have failed to notice was the courage and invention with which Eliot transcended the personal and autobiographical (despite the fact that she saw something of herself in Lydgate, and in other ways resembled Dorothea Brooke) to portray an entire society: rich and poor, bankers and farmers, men of the church, doctors and auctioneers, male and female, old and young, married and single, liberal and conservative, to say nothing of the endless individual variations of character within those larger categories.
Dickens and Thackeray had died not long before Middlemarch was published. Not many writers, and certainly few women, were announcing their intention to put the whole world, or a fully realized corner of the world, onto the printed page. Yet Eliot was clearly determined to portray the entirety of Middlemarch. Around the time that Lydgate—the ambitious young doctor and outsider—makes his appearances in the novel, a brief consideration of destiny segues into the subject of social mobility in the provinces during the decade in which the book is set:
Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement: had not only its striking downfalls, its brilliant young professional dandies who ended by living up an entry with a drab and six children for their establishment, but also those less marked vicissitudes which are constantly shifting the boundaries of social intercourse, and begetting new consciousness of interdependence. Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirates, gained wealth, and fastidious gentlemen stood for boroughs; some were caught in political currents, some in ecclesiastical, and perhaps found themselves surprisingly grouped in consequence; while a few personages or families that stood with rocky firmness amid all this fluctuation, were slowly presenting new aspects in spite of solidity, and altering with the double change of self and beholder.
So Eliot sums up an era, a place, a political climate—and sets the stage for the remainder of the novel.
This passage occurs almost an eighth of the way through the book, which until this point has been occupied largely with the subject of the fervently idealistic Dorothea Brooke and her marriage to Edward Casaubon, the withered, humorless, pompous scholar who has devoted his life to his magnum opus, The Key to All Mythologies—a gargantuan project with which Dorothea imagines that she will provide invaluable help.
Already we understand that this seemingly important and noble work would have a strong attraction for Dorothea. For in the novel’s prelude, the brief introduction that many readers page through on their way to the start of what may seem at first (deceptively!) to be the conventional marriage plot, we have been presented with the central problem of Dorothea’s life:
Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? . . . That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity . . . Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.
Rereading this after finishing the novel, we cannot claim that we haven’t been warned about the fate of these Saint Theresas everywhere. And yet we begin our reading each time in the hope that the saint, and her more recent incarnations, will be able to strike out on their own, to achieve what they wish, with or without their little brothers in tow.
The novel is almost a hundred pages under way before we meet its second main character, Tertius Lydgate, whose story has numerous connections and parallels to Dorothea’s. Arriving in Middlemarch with the plan of using the region as a sort of testing ground and research facility for his scientific theories and modern ideas about medical practice, Lydgate also has something of the Saint Theresa in him: he is idealistic, determined, quasi-fanatical, dangerously flawed.
Eliot allows us to see Lydgate’s weak points—his ambition, his vanity, his shallow judgments about women—almost as soon as we meet him. We watch him chatting with the serious, high-minded Dorothea, and, lest we suppose even momentarily that there might be anything between them beyond respectful fellow feeling, Lydgate explains why he has reservations about a woman like Dorothea, whom he finds “a little too earnest . . . It is troublesome to talk to such women. They are always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any question, and usually fall back on their moral sense to settle things after their own taste.” A page or so later, the narrator pulls back from Lydgate’s point of view to more accurately diagnose the young doctor’s ideas about women: “Miss Brooke would be found wanting, notwithstanding her undeniable beauty. She did not look at things from the proper feminine angle. The society of such women was about as relaxing as going from your work to teach the second form, instead of reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes, and blue eyes for a heaven.”
Perhaps this is the time to address the subject of George Eliot’s own views on the role of women in society. Though she had close friends who were committed feminists, and though the movement had become more vocal by the time she was at work on Middlemarch, Eliot was not among these ardent fighters for equal rights. Here is an incisive summary of her position on women, quoted from Jennifer Uglow’s marvelous, brief biography of Eliot, first published in this country in 1987 and now, regrettably, out of print:
The message for the lives of women seems to be that although change must come (preferably gradually rather than suddenly), it must not be at the expense of traditional female values. Although it is wrong for women to be excluded from access to common culture and common stores of power, they should demand them for the sake of partnership with men and for the good of society, not just for their own separate fulfillment . . . Eliot believes partnership is essential for social harmony because there are essential feminine and masculine attributes which derive from biology, cultural conditioning and individual upbringing which encourage contrasting attitudes to life.
What this means in her novels is that “the traditional roles which seem to oppress women most—the submissive daughter, the self-denying wife, the loving and patient mother—become symbols of woman’s social mission. The vital thing is not to launch women into a masculine sphere, but to ‘feminise’ men, because the feminine strengths have for so long been trampled underfoot and undervalued.”
Consequently, the domestic contentment that Dorothea achieves by the end of the novel—one of the last things we see her doing is, in effect, arranging a playdate for her child and the children of her sister Celia—is not, for Eliot, a sign of failure. Dorothea’s desire to become a modern Saint Theresa was doomed to be at odds with the genuine contribution that Eliot sees her making in the form of a life of service—not service to the bogus work of scholarship on which Casaubon labored, but service to the reformist views and political career of her husband, to the household, the children, the hearth: the moral and spiritual education and improvement of her immediate circle and a few fortunate members of the next generation.
Thoughtful readers will likely suspect that there is something self-contradictory and paradoxical in Eliot giving us a female character who seems unusually forceful, reflective, and intelligent for a woman of the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, of any century—and keeping her at home. What we see by the end of the book is a woman of intense ambition, intellect, passion, and capability who is satisfied and fulfilled by a placid, loving domestic life. This is hardly the life that George Eliot herself led: traveling, receiving the accolades awarded to an extremely famous writer, holding court in her London home, hosting fellow writers and admirers who came to catch a glimpse of her or hear some words of wisdom.
If Lydgate enters into a considerably less than blissful union, it’s not—in Eliot’s view—because he insists on finding a sufficiently feminine woman who promises “sweet laughs” rather than intellectual companionship. Instead, it’s because he chooses the wrong woman, one with no concern for the good of society, no interest in anything beyond prestige and social status, in the luxuries she can acquire, and who demonstrates none of the womanly virtues that Eliot so admired. What Rosamond Vincy—Lydgate’s sweetheart and later his wife—does offer is one of the greatest portraits of a narcissist in English literature: a woman who believes she is irresistible, that no man can withstand her charms, and that there is no reason she should be denied either the most trivial whim or the costliest desire. She is not only shallow but vain, self-dramatizing, and false: “Every nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress . . . she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own.” Unlike the straightforward, impeccably honest Dorothea, Rosamond resorts to manipulation, sulking, pouting, and stubborn resistance when she fails to get her way.
As Lydgate falls more deeply into debt, in large part because of furniture and the domestic and personal expenses that Rosamond has incurred, and as his hopes for professional success, fame, and fortune fail to materialize, Rosamond proves that she is not the sympathetic helpmate he imagined, but rather a selfish creature who seems quite willing to cut him loose when it appears that he may be unable to support her in the style to which she has been accustomed.
The Lydgate marriage is not the only unhappy one in Middlemarch; the doctor’s growing doubts about his wife and the increasing misery and discord in his household parallel that of Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon. Though they could not possibly have found two more different spouses, Dorothea and Lydgate have made similar mistakes: they have married people who will turn out to be quite unlike the people they supposed them to be. Both imagine their prospective spouses to be large-minded and quietly heroic, and subsequently find them to be petty, uncharitable, and, in their separate ways, rigid. Both Lydgate and Dorothea will make disheartening and ultimately shattering discoveries about the true natures that underlie the fantasy creatures they have wed.
Readers may feel that they know all there is to know about the Reverend Casaubon very early on, from his letter of proposal, surely one of the most chilling love letters in literature. But Dorothea’s idealism—the quasi-religious enthusiasm she feels at the prospect of aiding her husband in his monumental work—blinds her to the reality of who he is, and of what his work entails, as well as its value.
It is to Eliot’s credit that she cannot allow any of her characters—even the odious Casaubon and the maddening Rosamond—to remain one-dimensional. Each is given moments during which we are permitted to see the gap (or, in Casaubon’s case, the abyss) between their dreams and what they have been able to achieve. In the middle of an argument during which Rosamond has at last shown her true colors, refusing to empathize with her husband or join with him in contemplating what their financial problems might mean for them both, Eliot gives Lydgate (and the reader) an opportunity, however brief and transient, to consider their descent into hardship from Rosamond’s point of view. “Perhaps it was not possible for Lydgate, under the double stress of outward material difficulty and of his own proud resistance to humiliating consequences, to imagine fully what this sudden trial was to a young creature who had known nothing but indulgence, and whose dreams had all been of new indulgence, more exactly to her taste.”
Earlier in the novel, during a quarrel between Dorothea and Casaubon, Eliot demonstrates the same insistence on presenting both sides, regardless of how likely we are to favor the beautiful, loving, humiliated wife over the harsh, self-important stick of a husband:
She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently. . . . Mr. Casaubon had a sensitiveness to match Dorothea’s, and an equal quickness to imagine more than the fact. He had formerly observed with approbation her capacity for worshipping the right object; he now foresaw with sudden terror that this capacity might be replaced by presumption, this worship by the most exasperating of all criticism,—that which sees vaguely a great many fine ends, and has not the least notion what it costs to reach them.
If we go back and reread Casaubon’s chilling letter of proposal, we find a rather complicated mixture of pomposity, self-regard, and insecurity. He begins by citing Dorothea’s ability to fill a need in his own life, her capacity for “devotedness,” and his hope that she is perfectly suited to help with “a work too special to be abdicated.” But he ends by somewhat obliquely acknowledging the difference in their ages and describing the emotions with which he waits for her reply: “I await the expression of your sentiments with an anxiety which it would be the part of wisdom (were it possible) to divert by a more arduous labour than usual. But in this order of experience I am still young, and in looking forward to an unfavourable possibility I cannot but feel that resignation to solitude will be more difficult after the temporary illumination of hope.”
With the exception of the unfailingly selfless, patient, and honest Mary Garth and her industrious mother and younger siblings, nearly all the characters in Middlemarch have their virtues and their flaws; though, as we may have noticed, in some people the balance tips further toward one side than the other. The vast majority of characters contain a mixture of the admirable and the foolish, the selfish and the selfless, and (in the case of Bulstrode) the penitent, the generous, the secretive, and the reprehensible.
This, too, may be part of what Woolf meant when she said that this was a novel for “grown-up people.” Unlike children, with their innocent faith in good guys and bad guys, adults are more likely to understand that to divide our fellow humans into two categories—angelic heroes and devilish villains—is, in most cases, to oversimplify and underestimate human psychology. Often Eliot seems to know more about her characters than they know about themselves, yet somehow this does not diminish them or make them seem lacking in self-awareness, or deluded. She understands how much we can bear to know about ourselves at any one time, and how difficult we find it to admit that we have made serious—and perhaps irremediable—mistakes.
Nearly everyone in Middlemarch makes mistakes—yet another truth about adult life that Woolf would have recognized. They marry the wrong people. They champion the wrong side in an argument. They ally themselves with supporters whose patronage is compromised by self-interest or tainted by a past crime that must be hidden, at all costs. And though some of the wrongs can be righted—Dorothea is rescued from her disastrous choice by the death of Casaubon—others (like Lydgate’s marriage) are beyond help, incapable of being fixed. Some of the most uncomfortable and painful sections of the novel occur when we watch its central characters realizing how badly they have misjudged a person or a situation—and beginning to fear that they may have ruined their lives.
Unlike other, equally brilliant but rather more charming and comforting novels (the work of Jane Austen comes to mind), Middlemarch is a book in which, again with lifelike accuracy, only a small minority of the characters get what they want. And most must settle for some compromise that promises a reasonable measure of satisfaction and happiness, if there is to be any at all.
The last paragraph of the novel is worth quoting, for its eloquence and for the sheer force of George Eliot’s ambivalence about what a person—a woman, in particular—can and should expect from life.
Dorothea herself had no dreams of being praised above other women, feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better. . . . [But] no life would have been possible for Dorothea which was not filled with emotion, and she had now a life filled also with a beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and marking out for herself. . . . Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in certain circles as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done . . . Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature . . . spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Whatever one imagines that one’s life is going to be, how often one is mistaken, how one’s life ultimately turns out—that story, different for each character and each reader, is only one of the stories for grown-up people that Middlemarch tells. Another is the eternally timely, relevant, and interesting story of the unending conflict between ambition and conscience.
Much of what happens to Lydgate transpires in this arena, and his decisions about these matters are ultimately more destructive than his unwise choice of a wife. Rather than spoil one of the novel’s critical plot points, I’ll refrain from recounting the details of an essential scene that occurs a little less than a quarter of the way through—and from which everything that happens to Lydgate thereafter could be said to proceed. All I will say is that it’s an informal election to decide who will get the chaplaincy of the charity hospital that Mr. Bulstrode plans to establish. There are two candidates. Lydgate has certain reasons (friendship, preference, good judgment) for voting for one man, and other reasons (a sense of what Bulstrode wants) for voting for the other.
It’s a quiet scene, a vote about a relatively insignificant religious-political matter, in a country district. But the scene is so well written, so elegantly paced, and, finally, so startling that it may take the reader a while to recover from what it tells us about Lydgate—and what it may suggest about us and the people we know. Perhaps that is partly because grown-up people may recall a similar choice that occurred in the course of their own lives, or one that they read or heard about or witnessed. Certainly, such moments are what V. S. Pritchett had in mind when he wrote of Eliot, “No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”
Middlemarch is rich with plot turns and incidents of this sort. The result is a novel written for grown-up people, thoughtful, complicated, gloriously expansive and old-fashioned, and at the same time as modern and timely as anything we may experience or observe.
George Gissing, New Grub Street
I was halfway through reading New Grub Street—in fact, I had brought the book with me—when I happened to sit down for lunch at a neighborhood restaurant in downtown Manhattan. The tables were so close that it took only a few moments for me to gather (it was impossible to avoid overhearing) that the young man and woman at the table beside mine were in the book-publishing business. All through their meal, they exchanged, with breathless intensity, the latest literary gossip: which editor had been hired by which house, which agent now represented which writer, how disappointed a famous biographer was over his new book’s lukewarm reception, who had reviewed whose novel (so nastily!) in an influential journal.
There is, as far as I know, no word for the peculiar sensation (it most nearly resembles déjà vu) of having read a passage of dialogue in a novel (especially one written more than a century ago) and going out into the world and hearing that same dialogue issuing from the lips of living, breathing human beings. But such was my experience on that otherwise ordinary afternoon as I eavesdropped on two strangers who were not merely echoing but almost precisely repeating the tropes, the rhythms, the substance of the talks in which George Gissing’s characters engage—tirelessly, obsessively—throughout his 1891 novel.
If one purpose of fiction is to remind us of how much remains the same despite superficial changes in manners and customs and regardless of the passage of time, New Grub Street fulfills that function perfectly. All these years after its composition, it still seems like reportage, faithful to its moment and descriptive of our own. Gissing’s novel is one of those books that confirm our gloomiest suspicions and most dismaying observations about the nature of the larger world in general, and the literary world in particular; and yet there is always something perversely affirming and encouraging about such confirmation. New Grub Street is a marvelously brave book in its refusal to equivocate about the darkness it perceives, its vision of the essential baseness of human motivation. The marvel is that it manages to be, at the same time, so engrossing, so entertaining, so well made, and—in its ability to take us out of ourselves and convey us to another realm that so eerily resembles our own—so unexpectedly cheering.
There’s something immensely endearing about the person who emerges from the facts of Gissing’s biography. The impecunious son of a pharmacist, he received a scholarship to Owens College, Manchester, and seemed headed for brilliant success—a promise he effectively scuttled, at the age of nineteen, by stealing money to help reform a prostitute named Nell Harrison. His impulsive, reckless, youthful behavior suggests the sort of conduct one might expect from any gifted, rebellious, and fiercely idealistic teenager of today. Clearly, no one could have been less like New Grub Street’s coldly calculating and self-serving Jasper Milvain than the young Gissing, who, after being expelled from school and serving a month in prison, left for America, where he supported himself by teaching and writing short stories. On his return to England, a modest bequest from an aunt enabled him to marry Nell Harrison—a predictably disastrous union that lasted only four years.
Gissing’s literary fortunes were not much happier than his romantic ones. New Grub Street was his ninth book, and though it was more favorably reviewed and popular than his previous works, he failed to profit much from its success, having sold the copyright outright to his publishers. It did, however, establish his literary reputation and enable him to write himself out of the grinding poverty he had been enduring. According to his diary, Gissing made seven false starts on New Grub Street, then began yet again and managed to complete the novel in two months.
Perhaps that’s why the novel has such an air of urgency and immediacy, the sense of an author so eager to tell us what he knows and wants to say that a considerable portion of the book’s plot is foreshadowed and encapsulated within the very first chapter. Like the (similarly wicked and sobering) novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett, this one begins at the breakfast table, with what we are led to believe is a typically rancorous conversation between Jasper Milvain and his two sisters, Maud and Dora. It’s one of many unpleasant family chats in a novel that fails to provide one single example of domestic sweetness, harmony, or accord, but rather presents us with a virtual panorama of the brutal hells that can—and do—exist between husbands and wives, parents and children, unloving and competitive siblings. The first sound we hear is the tolling of church bells, followed by Jasper remarking, somewhat unnecessarily but with great “cheerfulness,” that “there’s a man being hanged in London at this moment.”
What Jasper—who is not merely a shallow, soulless opportunist but also a consummate narcissist—finds so inspiriting is the thought that this sad fate is not happening to him, a response that Maud correctly diagnoses as symptomatic of “your selfish way of looking at things.” Soon enough, the arrival of a letter from Milvain’s friend Edwin Reardon turns the conversation to the current situation: this struggling novelist, who—Milvain rather breezily predicts—will ultimately have no choice but to poison or shoot himself. In fact, though Reardon will briefly consider suicide, it will be Harold Biffen—an even more hapless author who, as Milvain says of Reardon, lacks the adaptive and practical skills required to turn writing into a “paying business”—who will eventually poison himself.
After foreseeing this dire fate for his friend, Milvain happily (“The enjoyment with which he anticipates it!” comments Maud) goes on to suggest that Reardon’s marriage will come to grief, since his “handsome wife,” an acquisition that Milvain envies, has already refused to “go into modest rooms—they must furnish a flat.” And lest the reader still fails to grasp the profound and essential dissimilarities between the two friends, Milvain plainly spells them out:
He is the old type of unpractical artist; I am the literary man of 1882. He won’t make concessions, or rather, he can’t make them; he can’t supply the market. . . . I am learning my business. Literature nowadays is a trade. . . . Your successful man of letters . . . thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising.
Jasper goes on to espouse his decidedly unromantic view of love and marriage (“When I have a decent income of my own, I shall marry a woman with an income somewhat larger, so that casualties may be provided for”). There follows a somewhat more specific discussion of probable inheritances and financial prospects, and finally a speech that falls somewhere between a rousing, visionary sermon on the subject of the state of literature and the sleaziest sort of self-justification: “I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes. We are not geniuses, and if we sit down in a spirit of long-eared gravity we shall produce only commonplace stuff. Let us use our wits to earn money, and make the best we can of our lives.”
And there it is; there it all is. For Jasper is not merely a hack writer but a sort of prophet—a man with impeccable instincts about the debased and degraded (though, in his view, glorious) future that awaits him, his family, and his friends. As the novel progresses, events will transpire more or less as he predicts in this initial conversation. The only surprise lies in seeing how it all goes down and in discovering that the reality of New Grub Street is even grimier and less attractive than Jasper Milvain’s repugnant calculations.
Anyone who has ever written, or considered writing, or who has the faintest interest in literary gossip will find much in New Grub Street that is all too familiar. Here, for example, is Whelpdale describing plans for a foolproof moneymaking scheme, a guide to “novel-writing taught in ten lessons”:
The first lesson deals with the question of subjects, local colour—that kind of thing. I gravely advise people, if they possibly can, to write of the wealthy middle class; that’s the popular subject, you know. Lords and ladies are all very well, but the real thing to take is a story about people who have no titles, but live in good Philistine style. I urge study of horsey matters especially.
Both Milvain and Reardon and their colleagues are almost constantly (if from very different perspectives) discussing the fact that success has less to do with the intrinsic value of a book than with a writer’s social position and connections, with the ability to give and attend elegant dinners and parties—the sort of activities that now fall under the rubric of “networking.”
Literary ambition, disappointment, rancor, jealousy, and despair are presented with chilling accuracy. Reardon and his creator know exactly how it feels to receive a rejection letter. (“Mr. Jedwood regretted that the story offered to him did not seem likely to please that particular public to whom his series of one-volume novels made appeal. He hoped it would be understood that, in declining, he by no means expressed an adverse judgment on the story itself, &c.” And anyone who has ever worked in magazine publishing will cringe upon reading Whelpdale’s opinion on the best way to accommodate the culture’s rapidly shrinking attention span:
I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated . . . the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. . . . What they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, . . . bits of statistics, bits of foolery. . . . Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can’t sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.
Yet Gissing’s analysis of the literary scene is only part of his vision of the larger society, a world ruled by greed and money and wholly determined by the interests and pressures of social class. His feeling for—and his ability to represent—the nuances of class difference is pitch-perfect. Indeed, one of the subthemes of the novel is the inherent difficulty, the problems and perils occasioned by marrying across class lines, a subject that Gissing presumably knew about from painful personal experience. Some of the book’s most affecting scenes involve the hideousness of domestic life chez Alfred Yule, the numerous instances in which Yule (who has married considerably “beneath him”) patronizes, punishes, and blames his innocent, good-hearted, long-suffering wife for the failure of his own ambitions and hopes. Unsurprisingly, he fears that his daughter, Marian, may be
infected with her mother’s faults of speech and behaviour. He would scarcely permit his wife to talk to the child. . . . And so it came to pass that one day the little girl, hearing her mother make some flagrant grammatical error, turned to the other parent and asked gravely: “Why doesn’t mother speak as properly as we do?” Well, that is one of the results of such marriages, one of the myriad miseries that result from poverty.
So New Grub Street painstakingly documents the “myriad miseries” of a world in which class snobbery is as powerful—and as primal—as some sort of alternate life force, a world in which the struggle for survival hardly, if ever, takes the form of physical combat but rather of scheming, calculation, and, especially, psychological manipulation. Few writers are as attuned as Gissing was to the ways in which we manipulate one another for our own self-serving purposes; one of the book’s most subtle and artfully orchestrated scenes is the one in which Jasper rather brilliantly maneuvers Marian into breaking off their engagement.
The ultimate irony of New Grub Street is, of course, that a novel that so gloomily and confidently predicts certain failure for any work that does not distract, amuse, lie, and flatter its “quarter-educated” audience has, in fact, not only succeeded and survived but become a classic. The triumph, for Gissing, was to have written a book that tells the truth as he saw it—the bitter truth, without sugarcoating—and to have found so durable and wide an audience. Even as the novel chills us with its still recognizable portrayal of the crass and vulgar world of literary endeavor, its very existence provides eloquent, encouraging proof of the fact that a powerful, honest writer can transcend the constraints of commerce, can speak louder than the clamor of the marketplace. How inspiring and comforting that a voice as clear and pure as Gissing’s has managed to rise above the static and buzz that, he seemed to fear, might keep it from being heard at all.
The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant
For thirty years, I have been teaching literature to college undergraduates and graduate students. And every semester—except on those rare occasions when the subject of the class has been too narrowly focused to include Mavis Gallant’s fiction—I have taught at least one, sometimes two, of her stories.
This is partly for selfish reasons. There are few writers whose work gives me so much pleasure to read to a group—in this case, a group of students. What a joy it is to hear, translated into my own voice and rhythms, the crispness and grace of Gallant’s sentences; the sparkle of her wit; the accuracy of her descriptions. How satisfying to pretend, if only for a few moments, that the sensible, capacious, no-nonsense humanity of her vision of the world is my own.
In addition, I feel a kind of messianic zeal, which I share with many writers and readers, to make sure that Gallant’s work continues to be read, admired—and loved. One can speculate about the possible reasons why she is not more universally known. Though her work appeared regularly and for decades (from the 1950s until the mid-1990s) in The New Yorker, where it attracted a loyal and enthusiastic readership, Gallant, who died in 2014, never became quite as popular, as widely recognized, or as frequently celebrated as any number of writers (John Updike would be one example) who published as regularly in the same publication over roughly the same period of time.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that she was a Canadian short story writer, born in Montreal in 1922, living in Paris, where she worked initially as a journalist, writing in English, and publishing in the United States. It was hard for any country to claim her, to make her a public figure (which she would have resisted), or for readers to classify her as one thing or another. Things (including books) are always easier to describe when they are like something else, and it was Gallant’s great strength and less than great public relations problem that her work is so unlike anyone else’s. What one extracts from what (little) Gallant has said about her life is the central fact of her wanting to do what she wanted, which was to write.
Finally, the classes I teach (and this has evolved over time) are centered on close reading, on examining every word, every sentence, considering word choice, diction, tone, subtext, and so forth. Most, if not all, serious fiction rewards this, but some writers reward it more than others. And there are some writers who provide evidence for—proof of—what I find myself telling students: some fiction simply cannot be understood—on the simplest level of plot and character—unless you pay attention and concentrate on every sentence, every word.
Mavis Gallant’s work demonstrates the technical daring and innovative freedom that, as in a painting by Velázquez, remain hidden unless you look closely, pay attention, and at the same time manage to surrender to the mystery of art, to the fact that it cannot be reduced, summarized, or made to seem like anything but itself. She places a huge amount of faith in her reader’s intelligence, a faith that demands and rewards careful reading. But she’s also very funny, and a great deal of fun. Her stories are full of satisfying reverses and breathtaking passages of dazzlingly precise, virtuosic writing.
One such story is “Mlle. Dias de Corta,” which appears among the stories of the eighties and nineties in the recent reissue of The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant, which was first published in 1962.
In the story, Gallant does a kind of magic trick, introducing us to a fairly unpleasant elderly Parisienne—xenophobic, passive-aggressive, self-involved, sly: a considerable range of unattractive personality traits. The story is framed as a letter addressed (though the letter can never be sent, because the narrator has no idea about what might be the correct address to send it to) to the eponymous young would-be actress who boarded with the narrator and her son decades before, and with whom the narrator’s son had a brief, disastrous affair. By the time we have reached the final sentences, our heart is breaking for this woman with whom, in all likelihood, we would prefer not to spend five minutes—unless we managed to persuade ourselves that she is (as indeed she is) a member of a vanishing breed, a subject of anthropological interest.
It is necessary to read closely, to understand what this woman is saying underneath what she appears to be saying: what she wants and needs to say, what she cannot say, and why she so often chooses to say something else entirely. On our second or third or fourth reading, aspects of the story emerge, complications we may have missed earlier—for example, the exact nature of the narrator’s worries about her son, Robert, and about the frostiness of their relationship. The way in which his affair with the young actress has divided him and his mother—and brought them together—may be opaque to the reader who skims rapidly through the text. Similarly, the history of the narrator’s marriage and the complexities of her worrisome financial situation can be apprehended only if we slow down and attempt to fathom what is being said—and not said.
Among the incisive and revealing passages are excerpts such as this one, from “The Moslem Wife,” the first in the collection. A woman named Netta reflects on the beginning of her childhood fascination with her cousin Jack, whom she later falls in love with and eventually marries:
Netta curtsied to her aunt and uncle. Her eyes were on Jack. She could not read yet, though she could sift and classify attitudes. She drew near him, sucking her lower lip, her hands behind her back. For the first time she was conscious of the beauty of another child. He was younger than Netta, imprisoned in a portable-fence arrangement in which he moved tirelessly, crabwise, hanging on a barrier he could easily have climbed. . . . She heard the adults laugh and say that Jack looked like a prizefighter. She walked around his prison, staring, and the blue-eyed fighter stared back.
Or this one, in which a desperate Paris art dealer named Sandor Speck reflects on the breakup of his marriage:
In his experience, love affairs and marriages perished between seven and eight o’clock, the hour of rain and no taxis. All over Paris couples must be parting forever, leaving like debris along the curbs the shreds of canceled restaurant dates, useless ballet tickets, hopeless explanations, and scraps of pride; and toward each of these disasters a taxi was pulling in, the only taxi for miles, the light on its roof already dimmed in anticipation to the twin dots that in Paris mean “occupied.” But occupied by whom?
Line by line, word by word, no one writes more compactly, more densely, with more compression. Great short stories are sometimes said to be as rich as novels. Gallant’s are like encyclopedias—of her characters’ psyches and lives. In a single paragraph from “Across the Bridge,” Gallant tells us much of what we might ever want to know about four characters: the narrator, her parents, and the suitor, Arnaud, to whom the narrator is engaged and whom she doesn’t want to marry because she has her heart set on some totally unsuitable young man in Lille. Gallant paints four portraits so deftly and with such a light touch that we may feel she is telling us something trivial, or perhaps of no importance:
My mother was a born coaxer and wheedler; avoided confrontation, preferring to move to a different terrain and beckon, smiling. One promised nearly anything just to keep the smile on her face. She was slim and quick, like a girl of fourteen. My father liked her in floral hats, so she still wore the floral bandeaux with their wisps of veil that had been fashionable ten years before. Papa used to tell about a funeral service where Maman had removed her hat so as to drape a mantilla over her hair. An usher, noticing the hat beside her on the pew, had placed it with the other flowers around the coffin. When I repeated the story to Arnaud he said the floral-hat anecdote was one of the world’s oldest. He had heard it a dozen times, always about a different funeral. I could not see why Papa would go on telling it if it were not true, or why Maman would let him. Perhaps she was the first woman it had ever happened to.
Each narrative offers us an entire existence (we feel that if a story doesn’t illuminate a whole life, Gallant was not interested in writing it) and a whole world, a milieu precisely situated in time and on the map of Europe and Quebec. She builds her fictions with moments and incidents so revealing and resonant that another writer might have made each one a separate story, and she has the nerve to include dramatic and significant events that—as so often happens in life—turn out to have unpredictably minor consequences. In “Irina,” the most devastating moment—an old man bursts into tears when he recalls a heartbreak in the distant past—is one that a child half glimpses and doesn’t understand. On occasion, the most influential character in the story never appears, like the irascible dead husband—and famous writer—whose oversize personality fills the background of “Irina.”
No one provides more concrete and factual information (details of personal and European history and politics, of family, employment; brushstrokes that establish a city, a subculture, or a domestic constellation) while at the same time making you feel as if you suddenly understand something essential about human life, something that perhaps you always knew, though you still can’t begin to express it. No one’s characters (young and old, male and female, rich and poor, from at least a dozen different countries) are more meticulously rendered. The characters’ specificity makes us feel simultaneously delighted, enlightened, and choked up. With a masterful control of tone that allows her to locate the perfect point on the continuum between engagement and detachment, and with a view of character at once scathing and endlessly tolerant and forgiving, Gallant displays an almost preternatural gift for making readers not meet but care profoundly about men and women and children whom they otherwise wouldn’t have met and might not have chosen to know. She accepts and reveals our flawed and complex human nature without pretending that our problems have solutions, or that experience—even tragic experience—necessarily changes or improves us.
In an afterword to the Collected Stories, Gallant advises her readers: “Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” Such advice may be superfluous. When you finish each of Gallant’s stories, it’s instinctive to stop and regroup. As much as you might wish to resume and prolong the pleasure of reading, you feel that your brain and heart cannot, at least for the moment, process or absorb one word, one detail, more.
The settings of her stories range from the French capital to the Ligurian Riviera, from Berlin to the Helsinki airport, from a small town in Switzerland to a grand hotel on the Côte d’Azur. Details of geography and local culture are crucial in Gallant’s work, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that so few of her characters come from, or feel at home in, the places where they happen to find themselves. Quite a few are understandably astonished to have wound up poor and adrift in post–World War II Europe, inhabiting the inhospitable border between exile and expatriation, covered with the almost visible film of desperation and the faint squalor that clings to those who feel they have come down in the world and—lacking talent or vocation—must struggle for survival.
Many of Gallant’s motley assortment of refugees, fugitives, expatriates, and travelers are displaced persons, scrambling on the margins of a society to which they will never belong and which they regard with the avid longing, curiosity, and clinical objectivity with which the beautifully drawn children in these tales observe the all but inscrutable adults around them. A number of stories tally the costs of dislocation. In “The Remission,” a terminally ill, impecunious Englishman brings his wife and three children to a decaying villa on the French–Italian border, where he intends to die. Instead, he survives for three years, long enough for his family to have a series of experiences that will change them far more than his death and absence. “The Latehomecomer” concerns a young German returning to Berlin in 1950 from a term as a prisoner of war in France, a sentence unfairly protracted by a bureaucratic mistake. And in “Baum, Gabriel, 1935-( ),” a German-Jewish refugee orphaned by the Nazis supports himself by working as an extra in TV dramas filmed in Paris, a job that eventually obliges him to play a German soldier.
The Second World War and its aftermath shapes or at least shadows many of these narratives. Acutely conscious of history and politics, Gallant’s work creates and reflects a milieu very distant from that of contemporary American stories in which the make of a car or a song on the radio may be the only detail that locates the story in time. But Gallant is an artist, not a historian, and she never lets us forget that her focus is not purely on politics, history, and war but on the effect that politics, history, and war have on individual lives. What’s painful for the “latehomecomer” is not the memory of his postwar imprisonment so much as the discovery of the vast distance that his mother’s life has traveled away from his own during his long absence. The opening of “Mlle. Dias de Corta”—“You moved into my apartment during the summer of the year before abortion became legal in France; that should fix it in past time for you, dear Mlle. Dias de Corta”—is not, as it turns out, principally a means of fixing the story in time, but rather a double-edged sword meant to reopen the wounds suffered by the letter’s imagined recipient and by the story’s simultaneously unpleasant and sympathetic narrator. So, too, in “The Moslem Wife,” the horrors of the Occupation pale beside the dark, unfathomable currents of sexual thrall in which a woman is held by the handsome, shallow husband she has loved since they were children.
Given that there is no “typical” Gallant work, “The Ice Wagon Going down the Street”—among my favorites of her stories—could be said to typify her themes, her style, her strategies, her perspective. Her trademarks: the specificity, the density of detail and incident, the control of language and tone, and her gift for creating a deceptively comfortable distance between the characters and the reader, then suddenly and without warning narrowing that distance, with a force that leaves the reader with the equivalent of whiplash, though the part that has been thrown out of joint is not the neck, but the heart.
As “Ice Wagon” begins, Peter and Sheilah Frazier, a down-on-their-luck but proud and (in their own minds) stylish couple, have returned from Europe to Peter’s native Canada, where they are camping out, with their two daughters, in Peter’s sister’s cramped Toronto flat. Peter is from a “good” Canadian family ruined by financial scandal, while Sheilah is a British beauty from a lower social caste.
The opening lines—the continental “peacocks” are lounging about on a Sunday morning while Lucille, Peter’s “wren” of a Canadian sister, has taken the also wrenlike daughters off to church—tell us all we need to know (or think we need to know) about this brittle folie à deux. Much of our information about the Fraziers comes through delicate grace notes—ironic word choices (“world affairs,” “international thing”), the subtle manipulations of tone, the grandiosity, mutual consolation, self-congratulation, and faint recrimination that form the text and subtext of the couple’s conversation.
Now that they are out of world affairs and back where they started, Peter Frazier’s wife says, “Everybody else did well in the international thing except us.”
“You have to be crooked,” he tells her.
“Or smart. Pity we weren’t.”
It is Sunday morning. They sit in the kitchen, drinking their coffee, slowly, remembering the past. They say the names of people as if they were magic. Peter thinks, Agnes Brusen, but there are hundreds of other names. As a private married joke, Peter and Sheilah wear the silk dressing gowns they bought in Hong Kong. Each thinks the other a peacock, rather splendid, but they pretend the dressing gowns are silly and worn in fun.
It is a measure of Gallant’s authority and nerve that the name Agnes Brusen, dropped boldly, without explanation, near the start of the story, will not reappear or be referred to again until seven dense and eventful pages later.
Before Agnes can make her formal appearance, we must follow the Fraziers on their nominally fabulous but in fact deeply sad trajectory through Europe, struggling among all the other sexy, social-climbing, ambitious young couples who flocked to the Continent in the aftermath of the war as if it were a Gold Rush town mined with excitement and glamour. Nearly every important event takes place in retrospect. Though everything proceeds smoothly in Gallant’s eventful, easy-to-follow narratives, sooner or later it becomes clear how gracefully she dispenses with conventional notions of chronology. Consequently, reading her work is not like being shown how one moment follows another, but rather like watching a hand very slowly pull back a curtain until, inch by inch, everything is revealed.
“Ice Wagon” tracks the Fraziers from Paris, where Peter ruins his nonexistent career during an incident involving a party, a flowerpot, and great quantities of alcohol. From then on, everything that happens to the Fraziers is either a fiasco, an embarrassment, a betrayal, or a disappointment. The family moves to Geneva, where they live in conditions of increasing squalor. (“The flat seemed damp as a cave. Peter remembers steam in the kitchen, pools under the sink, sweat on the pipes. Water streamed on him from the children’s clothes, washed and dripping overhead.”) Their one talismanic possession is Sheilah’s black Balenciaga gown, a symbol of elegance and style that they cling to as a religious couple might treasure the family Bible.
During their time in Geneva, Peter had a job as a file clerk, cataloging photos “in the information service of an international agency in the Palais des Nations” and sharing an office with another Canadian—a homely little mole of a woman by the name of Agnes Brusen.
In Geneva Peter worked for a woman—a girl. She was a Norwegian from a small town in Saskatchewan. . . . Soon after Agnes Brusen came to the office she hung her framed university degree on the wall. It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil, and family sacrifice. . . . The girl might have been twenty-three: no more. She wore a brown tweed suit with bone buttons, and a new silk scarf and new shoes. She clutched an unscratched brown purse. She seemed dressed in going-away presents. . . . He was courteous, hiding his disappointment. The people he worked with had told him a Scandinavian girl was arriving, and he had expected a stunner. Agnes was a mole.
Almost immediately, Agnes becomes involved in a triangulated relationship with the Fraziers—not a romantic triangle, but one including humiliations, disappointments, and misunderstandings. The Fraziers are appalled to learn that Agnes is a regular visitor at the home of a couple who have dropped Peter and Sheilah from their guest list for reasons having to do (Peter thinks) with Sheilah’s class background. Eager to know why Agnes has been admitted to the lost paradise, Peter and Sheilah invite her to dinner—and to one of the most excruciating social disasters in literature. At yet another unfortunate party, this time a costume ball, Agnes, a teetotaler, gets so drunk that their hostess strong-arms Peter into taking Agnes home. And that night, and the next day, something happens between Agnes and Peter. The something is not sex, but an encounter just as profound and perhaps more likely even than sex to leave a man and a woman forever imprinted on each other. For that one day, the artifice and pretense of Peter’s life drop away. But Peter and Agnes—and the narrator—insist that “nothing happened.”
But what were they talking about that day, so quietly, such old friends? They talked about dying, about being ambitious, about being religious, about different kinds of love. What did she see when she looked at him—taking her knuckle slowly away from her mouth, bringing her hand down to the desk, letting it rest there? They were both Canadians, so they had this much together—the knowledge of the little you dare admit. Death, near death, the best thing, the wrong thing—God knows what they were telling each other. Anyway, nothing happened.
It would be necessary to read every word of this long, complicated story to get the full import—to feel the force—of its ending. It’s as if the eye of the hurricane has been hovering over Agnes and Peter, rather than over Peter and Sheilah, gathering momentum, until in its final paragraphs the story (to extend the storm metaphor) blows the roof off.
Mavis Gallant’s work leaves an afterimage that stays with us and that we can conjure up, the way we can close our eyes and see how Velázquez paints an egg. Her fiction has the originality and profundity, the clarity, the breadth of vision, the wit, the mystery, the ability to make us feel that a work has found its ideal form, that not one word could be changed, all of which we recognize as being among the great wonders of art.